Well-designed and effectively managed networks of marine reserves can be effective tools for both fisheries management and biodiversity conservation. Connectivity, the demographic linking of local populations through the dispersal of individuals as larvae, juveniles or adults, is a key ecological factor to consider in marine reserve design, since it has important implications for the persistence of metapopulations and their recovery from disturbance. For marine reserves to protect biodiversity and enhance populations of species in fished areas, they must be able to sustain focal species (particularly fishery species) within their boundaries, and be spaced such that they can function as mutually replenishing networks whilst providing recruitment subsidies to fished areas. Thus the configuration (size, spacing and location) of individual reserves within a network should be informed by larval dispersal and movement patterns of the species for which protection is required. In the past, empirical data regarding larval dispersal and movement patterns of adults and juveniles of many tropical marine species have been unavailable or inaccessible to practitioners responsible for marine reserve design. Recent empirical studies using new technologies have also provided fresh insights into movement patterns of many species and redefined our understanding of connectivity among populations through larval dispersal. Our review of movement patterns of 34 families (210 species) of coral reef fishes demonstrates that movement patterns (home ranges, ontogenetic shifts and spawning migrations) vary among and within species, and are influenced by a range of factors (e.g. size, sex, behaviour, density, habitat characteristics, season, tide and time of day). Some species move <0.1–0.5 km (e.g. damselfishes, butterflyfishes and angelfishes), <0.5–3 km (e.g. most parrotfishes, goatfishes and surgeonfishes) or 3–10 km (e.g. large parrotfishes and wrasses), while others move tens to hundreds (e.g. some groupers, emperors, snappers and jacks) or thousands of kilometres (e.g. some sharks and tuna). Larval dispersal distances tend to be <5–15 km, and self-recruitment is common. Synthesising this information allows us, for the first time, to provide species, specific advice on the size, spacing and location of marine reserves in tropical marine ecosystems to maximise benefits for conservation and fisheries management for a range of taxa. We recommend that: (i) marine reserves should be more than twice the size of the home range of focal species (in all directions), thus marine reserves of various sizes will be required depending on which species require protection, how far they move, and if other effective protection is in place outside reserves; (ii) reserve spacing should be <15 km, with smaller reserves spaced more closely; and (iii) marine reserves should include habitats that are critical to the life history of focal species (e.g. home ranges, nursery grounds, migration corridors and spawning aggregations), and be located to accommodate movement patterns among these. We also provide practical advice for practitioners on how to use this information to design, evaluate and monitor the effectiveness of marine reserve networks within broader ecological, socioeconomic and management contexts.