Aim: Broadly distributed reef fishes tend to have high gene flow mediated by a pelagic larval phase. Here, we survey a reef-associated fish distributed across half the tropical oceans, from the Red Sea to the central Pacific. Our goal is to determine whether genetic structure of the broadly distributed Yellowstripe Goatfish (Mulloidichthys flavolineatus) is defined by biogeographical barriers, or facilitated via larval dispersal. Location: Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean Methods: Specimens were obtained at 19 locations from the Red Sea to Hawai'i. Genetic data include mtDNA cytochrome b (n = 217) and 12 microsatellite loci (n = 185). Analysis of molecular variance (AMOVA), structure, a parsimony network and coalescence analyses were used to resolve recent population history and connectivity. Results: Population structure was significant (mtDNA ϕST = 0.68, P < 0.001; microsatellite FST = 0.08, P < 0.001), but mostly driven by samples from the North-western (NW) Indian Ocean (including the Red Sea) and Hawai'i. There was little population structure across the Indian Ocean to the central Pacific. Hawai'i was distinguished as an isolated population (mtDNA ϕST = 0.03-0.08, P = n.s.; microsatellites FST = 0.05-0.10, P < 0.001). Specimens from the NW Indian Ocean clustered as a distinct phylogenetic lineage that diverged approximately 493 ka (d = 1.7%), which indicates that these fish persisted in isolation through several Pleistocene glacial cycles. Main conclusions: These data reinforce the emerging themes that: (1) phylogeographical breaks within species often coincide with biogeographical breaks based on species distributions, and (2) populations on the periphery of the range (NW Indian Ocean and Hawai'i) are isolated and may be evolutionary incubators producing new species. © 2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.