Lichens are symbioses between fungi (mycobionts) and photoautotrophic green algae or cyanobacteria (photobionts). Many lichens occupy large distributional ranges covering several climatic zones. So far, little is known about the large-scale phylogeography of lichen photobionts and their role in shaping the distributional ranges of lichens. We studied south polar, temperate and north polar populations of the widely distributed fruticose lichen Cetraria aculeata. Based on the DNA sequences from three loci for each symbiont, we compared the genetic structure of mycobionts and photobionts. Phylogenetic reconstructions and Bayesian clustering methods divided the mycobiont and photobiont data sets into three groups. An amova shows that the genetic variance of the photobiont is best explained by differentiation between temperate and polar regions and that of the mycobiont by an interaction of climatic and geographical factors. By partialling out the relative contribution of climate, geography and codispersal, we found that the most relevant factors shaping the genetic structure of the photobiont are climate and a history of codispersal. Mycobionts in the temperate region are consistently associated with a specific photobiont lineage. We therefore conclude that a photobiont switch in the past enabled C. aculeata to colonize temperate as well as polar habitats. Rare photobiont switches may increase the geographical range and ecological niche of lichen mycobionts by associating them with locally adapted photobionts in climatically different regions and, together with isolation by distance, may lead to genetic isolation between populations and thus drive the evolution of lichens.