There are a variety of proposed evolutionary and ecological explanations for why some species have more extensive geographical ranges than others. One of the most common explanations is variation in species’ dispersal ability. However, the purported relationship between dispersal distance and range size has been subjected to few theoretical investigations, and empirical tests reach conflicting conclusions. We attempt to reconcile the equivocal results of previous studies by reviewing and synthesizing quantitative dispersal data, examining the relationship between average dispersal ability and range size for different spatial scales, regions and taxonomic groups. We use extensive data from marine taxa whose average dispersal varies by seven orders of magnitude. Our results suggest dispersal is not a general determinant of range size, but can play an important role in some circumstances. We also review the mechanistic theories proposed to explain a positive relationship between range size and dispersal and explore their underlying rationales and supporting or refuting evidence. Despite numerous studies assuming a priori that dispersal influences range size, this is the first comprehensive conceptual evaluation of these ideas. Overall, our results indicate that although dispersal can be an important process moderating species’ distributions, increased attention should be paid to other processes responsible for range size variation.