The central problem in biogeography is that interactions between different processes result in the formation of historical patterns, such that it is difficult to discriminate the relative roles of vicariance and dispersal. Ferns are distributed by small wind-dispersed propagules that are produced in very large numbers and capable of dispersing thousands of kilometers. Thus, most taxon distributions in ferns are assumed to be a function of dispersal rather than vicariance. Here, we review some case examples that provide good evidence for vicariance and dispersal in ferns. We then ask whether dispersal is so extensive in ferns that vicariance is no longer detectable in most cases. Although we think that too few studies have been carried out to make generalizations at this stage, we outline the criteria for an effective research programme that can address this issue. Phylogenetic and distributional data are needed, not only because they are lacking in an evolutionarily important group of organisms, but also because data from ferns and other cryptogams are likely to be crucial in making broad biogeographic statements.