Previous attempts to resolve plesiosaurian phylogeny are reviewed and a new phylogenetic data set of 66 taxa (67% of ingroup taxa examined directly) and 178 characters (eight new) is presented. We recover two key novel results: a monophyletic Plesiosauridae comprising Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, Hydrorion brachypterygius, Microcleidus homalospondylus, Occitanosaurus tournemirensis and Seeleyosaurus guilelmiimperatoris; and five plesiosaurian taxa recovered outside the split between Plesiosauroidea and Pliosauroidea. These taxa are Attenborosaurus conybeari, ‘Plesiosaurus’macrocephalus and a clade comprising Archaeonectrus rostratus, Macroplata tenuiceps and BMNH 49202. Based on this result, a new name, Neoplesiosauria, is erected for the clade comprising Plesiosauroidea and Pliosauroidea. Taxon subsamples of the new dataset are used to simulate previous investigations of global plesiosaurian relationships. Based on these simulations, most major differences between previous global phylogenetic hypotheses can be attributed to differences in taxon sampling. These include the position of Leptocleididae and Polycotylidae and the monophyly or paraphyly of Rhomaleosauridae. On this basis we favour the results recovered by our, larger analysis. Leptocleididae and Polycotylidae are sister taxa, forming a monophyletic clade within Plesiosauroidea, indicating that the large-headed, short-necked ‘pliosauromorph’ body plan evolved twice within Plesiosauria. Rhomaleosauridae forms the monophyletic sister taxon of Pliosauridae within Pliosauroidea. Problems are identified with previous phylogenetic definitions of plesiosaurian clades and new, stem-based definitions are presented that should maintain their integrity over a range of phylogenetic hypotheses. New, rank-free clade names Cryptoclidia and Leptocleidia are erected to replace the superfamilies Cryptoclidoidea and Leptocleidoidea. These were problematic as they were nested within the superfamily Plesiosauroidea. The incongruence length difference test indicates no significant difference in levels of homoplasy between cranial and postcranial characters.