The polar bear is found in the Arctic Circle and adjacent land masses. Due to the absence of human development in its remote habitat, it retains more of its original range than any other extant carnivore. While they are rare north of 88°, there is evidence that they range all the way across the Arctic, and as far south as James Bay in Canada. They can occasionally drift widely with the sea ice, and there have been anecdotal sightings as far south as Berlevåg on the Norwegian mainland and the Kuril Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk.

It is difficult to estimate a global population of polar bears as much of the range has been poorly studied, however biologists use a working estimate of about 20,000–25,000 polar bears worldwide. There are 19 generally recognized discrete subpopulations. The subpopulations display seasonal fidelity to particular areas, but DNA studies show that they are not reproductively isolated.

The range includes the territory of five nations: Denmark (Greenland), Norway (Svalbard), Russia, the United States (Alaska) and Canada. These five nations are the signatories of the 1973 International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears, which mandates cooperation on research and conservations efforts throughout the polar bear’s range.