A major question in our understanding of eukaryotic biodiversity is whether small bodied taxa have cosmopolitan distributions or consist of geographically localized cryptic taxa. Here, we explore the global phylogeography of the freshwater cladoceran Polyphemus pediculus (Linnaeus, 1761) (Crustacea, Onychopoda) using two mitochondrial genes, cytochrome c oxidase subunit I and 16s ribosomal RNA, and one nuclear marker, 18s ribosomal RNA. The results of neighbour-joining and Bayesian phylogenetic analyses reveal an exceptionally pronounced genetic structure at both inter- and intra-continental scales. The presence of well-supported, deeply divergent phylogroups across the Holarctic suggests that P. pediculus represents an assemblage of at least nine, largely allopatric cryptic species. Interestingly, all phylogenetic analyses support the reciprocal paraphyly of Nearctic and Palaearctic clades. Bayesian inference of ancestral distributions suggests that P. pediculus originated in North America or East Asia and that European lineages of Polyphemus were established by subsequent intercontinental dispersal events from North America. Japan and the Russian Far East harbour exceptionally high levels of genetic diversity at both regional and local scales. In contrast, little genetic subdivision is apparent across the formerly glaciated regions of Europe and North America, areas that historical demographic analyses suggest that were recolonized just 5500–24 000 years ago.