Copelatinae is a diverse lineage of diving beetles (Dytiscidae) frequently encountered in wet tropical and subtropical forests, but phylogenetic relationships are very poorly understood. We performed a phylogenetic and biogeographic analysis of this worldwide distributed group based on 50 species including a representative sample of major taxonomic groups and biogeographical regions. DNA sequences were obtained for the mitochondrial genes cytochrome oxidase I, cytochrome b, and 16S rRNA, for a total of 1575 aligned nucleotide positions. We found Copelatinae to be monophyletic, placed in a derived position and not sister to all remaining dytiscids, as had been suggested by earlier authors. The largest genus, Copelatus with some 460 known species was paraphyletic with respect to the smaller genera Lacconectus and Aglymbus. Among the major lineages of Copelatus, the subgenus Papuadytes was consistently recovered as sister to all other species (including Lacconectus and Aglymbus) with the possible exception of two western Palearctic taxa. We propose that the subgenus Papuadytes is removed from Copelatus and assigned generic status. Likewise, the two western Palearctic Copelatus are removed from this genus, and assigned the available genus name Liopterus. Our best phylogenetic hypothesis retrieved Afrotropical and New Guinean plus Australian species of Copelatus as monophyletic. Asian species were paraphyletic with respect to a species from Sulawesi which grouped with the species from New Guinea. Asian species were also paraphyletic with respect to Oriental Lacconectus, which was grouped with a clade of Neotropical species. Neotropical Copelatus form at least two separate lineages. The biogeographical evolution of Papuadytes is consistent with the relative age of the landmasses in the Austral region. Basal species are Australian, and successively derived ones are from New Caledonia and New Guinea. One species apparently dispersed from New Caledonia to China. Assuming a molecular clock and using a standard calibration of 2% divergence/MY the origin of Copelatinae is estimated to be between 85 and 95 MY.