Background Recent surveys of eukaryote 18S rDNA diversity in marine habitats have uncovered worldwide distribution of the heterotrophic eukaryote phylum Telonemia. Here we investigate the diversity and geographic distribution of Telonemia sequences by in-depth sequencing of several new 18S rDNA clone libraries from both marine and freshwater sites by using a Telonemia-specific PCR strategy. Results In contrast to earlier studies that have employed eukaryote-wide PCR design, we identified a large and unknown diversity of phylotypes and the first rigorous evidence for several freshwater species, altogether comprising 91 unique sequences. Phylogenies of these and publicly available sequences showed 20 statistically supported sub-clades as well as several solitary phylotypes with no clear phylogenetic affiliation. Most of these sub-clades were composed of phylotypes from different geographic regions. Conclusions By using specific PCR primers we reveal a much larger diversity of Telonemia from environmental samples than previously uncovered by eukaryote-wide primers. The new data substantially diminish the geographic structuring of clades identified in earlier studies. Nevertheless, since these clades comprise several distinct phylotypes we cannot exclude endemicity at species level. We identified two freshwater clades and a few solitary phylotypes, implying that Telonemia have colonized freshwater habitats and adapted to the different environmental and ecological conditions at independent occasions.