Abstract Aims We have two aims: (1) to examine the relationship between local population persistence, local abundance and regional occupancy of stream diatoms and (2) to characterize the form of the species–occupancy frequency distribution of stream diatoms. Location Boreal streams in Finland. There were three spatial extents: (1) across ecoregions in Finland, (2) within ecoregions in Finland, and (3) within a single drainage system in southern Finland. Methods Diatoms were sampled from stones (epilithon), sediment (epipelon) and aquatic plants (epiphyton) in streams using standardized sampling methods. To assess population persistence, diatom sampling was conducted monthly at four stream sites from June to October. The relationships between local population persistence, local abundance and regional occupancy were examined using correlation analyses. Results There was a significant positive relationship between local persistence and abundance of diatoms in epilithon, epipelon and epiphyton. Furthermore, local abundance and regional occupancy showed a significant positive relationship at multiple spatial extents; that is, across ecoregions, within ecoregions and within a drainage system. The relationships between occupancy and abundance did not differ appreciably among impacted and near pristine-reference sites. The occupancy–frequency distribution was characterized by a large number of satellite species which occurred at only a few sites, whereas core species that occurred at most sites were virtually absent. Main conclusions The positive relationship between local population persistence and abundance suggested that a high local abundance may prevent local extinction or that high persistence is facilitated by a high local cell density. High local persistence and local abundance may also positively affect the degree of regional occupancy in stream diatoms. The results further showed that anthropogenic effects were probably too weak to bias the relationship between occupancy and abundance, or that the effects have already modified the distribution patterns of stream diatoms. The small number of core species in the species–occupancy frequency distribution suggested that the regional distribution patterns of stream diatoms, or perhaps unicellular microbial organisms in general, may not be fundamentally different from those described previously for multicellular organisms, mainly in terrestrial environments, although average global range sizes may differ sharply between these two broad groups of organisms.