Changes in marine plankton communities driven by environmental variability impact the marine food web and global biogeochemical cycles of carbon and other elements. To predict and assess these community shifts and their consequences, ecologists are increasingly investigating how the functional traits of plankton determine their relative fitness along environmental and biological gradients. Laboratory, field and modelling studies are adopting this trait-based approach to map the biogeography of plankton traits that underlies variations in plankton communities. Here, we review progress towards understanding the regulatory roles of several key plankton functional traits, including cell size, N2-fixation and mixotrophy among phytoplankton, and body size, ontogeny and feeding behaviour for zooplankton. The trait biogeographical approach sheds light on what structures plankton communities in the current ocean, as well as under climate change scenarios, and also allows for finer resolution of community function because community trait composition determines the rates of significant processes, including carbon export. Although understanding of trait biogeography is growing, uncertainties remain that stem, in part, from the paucity of observations describing plankton functional traits. Thus, in addition to recommending widespread adoption of the trait-based approach, we advocate for enhanced collection, standardisation and dissemination of plankton functional trait data.