To assess the population genetic structure of the three-spined stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus, variability at 18 microsatellite loci was examined in 1724 individuals from 74 locations covering most of the species distribution range in Europe. The results revealed high overall degree of differentiation (F(ST) = 0.21) but contrasting level of divergence and genetic variability between habitat types. Marine populations were genetically relatively uniform even across great geographical distances as compared to substantial differentiation among freshwater populations. Analysis of molecular variance indicated low but significant (2.7%) variation in allele frequencies between geographical regions, but a negligible effect of habitat type (0.2%). The phylogenetic pattern was not explained by habitat type, but a weak signal of populations clustering according to geographical or water system origin was found. The results support the view that three-spined stickleback marine ancestors colonized northern European fresh waters during the postglacial marine submergence c. 10,000 years ago, whereas in the Mediterranean region colonization probably dates back to the Pleistocene. The independent origins of river and lake populations indicate that they originate from multiple colonizations rather than sharing common ancestry. In the continuous marine environment, the low degree of differentiation among populations can be explained by gene flow among subpopulations and large effective population size buffering divergence in neutral markers. In contrast, among postglacially established freshwater populations differentiation appears to be driven by genetic drift and isolation. The stepwise mutations appear to have contributed to the population differentiation in the southern part of the three-spined stickleback distribution range.