Applying biochar to soil is thought to have multiple benefits, from helping mitigate climate change [1, 2], to managing waste  to conserving soil . Biochar is also widely assumed to boost crop yield [5, 6], but there is controversy regarding the extent and cause of any yield benefit . Here we use a global-scale meta-analysis to show that biochar has, on average, no effect on crop yield in temperate latitudes, yet elicits a 25% average increase in yield in the tropics. In the tropics, biochar increased yield through liming and fertilization, consistent with the low soil pH, low fertility, and low fertilizer inputs typical of arable tropical soils. We also found that, in tropical soils, high-nutrient biochar inputs stimulated yield substantially more than low-nutrient biochar, further supporting the role of nutrient fertilization in the observed yield stimulation. In contrast, arable soils in temperate regions are moderate in pH, higher in fertility, and generally receive higher fertilizer inputs, leaving little room for additional benefits from biochar. Our findings demonstrate that the yield-stimulating effects of biochar are not universal, but may especially benefit agriculture in low-nutrient, acidic soils in the tropics. Biochar management in temperate zones should focus on potential non-yield benefits such as lime and fertilizer cost savings, greenhouse gas emissions control, and other ecosystem services.