The Rufous-tailed Jacamar can be found in the following countries in Central and northern South America: Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela (BirdLife International 2009a). It primarily occurs in the lowlands, but the elevational range extends up to 1300 m in the Magdalena valley in Colombia (Hilty and Brown 1986). Elsewhere the upper distributional limit is lower, e.g. 750 m in Mexico (Howell and Webb 1995); 750 m (rarely to 1200 m) in Costa Rica (Stiles and Skutch 1989); and 900 m on the Pacific coast in Colombia (Hilty and Brown 1986).
Across this range, there are six recognized subspecies. The geographic range and habitats for these subspecies are described below (see also Geographic Variation):
G. r. ruficauda: wide variety of habitats in Venezuela and northern Colombia, and easternmost Panama.
G. r. pallens: dry Caribbean lowlands of northern Colombia.
G. r. brevirostris: Maracaibo basin.
G. r. melanogenia: humid areas; Central America, although not found in central/eastern Panama for unknown reasons; forest streams and borders in western Colombia.
G. r. rufoviridis: Brazil, south of the Amazon; river banks in Amazonia; drier tableland of central Brazil; locally in arid areas in northeastern Brazil.
G. r. heterogyna: eastern base of the Bolivian Andes.