Abstract Aim The aim of this paper is to analyse the biogeography of Nothofagus and its subgenera in the light of molecular phylogenies and revisions of fossil taxa. Location Cooler parts of the South Pacific: Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, montane New Guinea and New Caledonia, and southern South America. Methods Panbiogeographical analysis is used. This involves comparative study of the geographic distributions of the Nothofagus taxa and other organisms in the region, and correlation of the main patterns with historical geology. Results The four subgenera of Nothofagus have their main massings of extant species in the same localities as the main massings of all (fossil plus extant) species. These main massings are vicariant, with subgen. Lophozonia most diverse in southern South America (north of Chiloé I.), subgen. Fuscospora in New Zealand, subgen. Nothofagus in southern South America (south of Valdivia), and subgen. Brassospora in New Guinea and New Caledonia. The main massings of subgen. Brassospora and of the clade subgen. Brassospora/subgen. Nothofagus (New Guinea–New Caledonia–southern South America) conform to standard biogeographical patterns. Main conclusions The vicariant main massings of the four subgenera are compatible with largely allopatric differentiation and no substantial dispersal since at least the Upper Cretaceous (Upper Campanian), by which time the fossil record shows that the four subgenera had evolved. The New Guinea–New Caledonia distribution of subgenus Brassospora is equivalent to its total main massing through geological time and is explained by different respective relationships of different component terranes of the two countries. Global vicariance at family level suggests that Nothofagaceae/Nothofagus evolved largely as the South Pacific/Antarctic vicariant in the breakup of a world-wide Fagales ancestor.