Most antigenically novel and evolutionarily successful strains of seasonal influenza A (H3N2) originate in East, South and Southeast Asia. To understand this pattern, we simulated the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of influenza in a host metapopulation representing the temperate north, tropics and temperate south. Although seasonality and air traffic are frequently used to explain global migratory patterns of influenza, we find that other factors may have a comparable or greater impact. Notably, a region's basic reproductive number (R0) strongly affects the antigenic evolution of its viral population and the probability that its strains will spread and fix globally: a 17–28% higher R0 in one region can explain the observed patterns. Seasonality, in contrast, increases the probability that a tropical (less seasonal) population will export evolutionarily successful strains but alone does not predict that these strains will be antigenically advanced. The relative sizes of different host populations, their birth and death rates, and the region in which H3N2 first appears affect influenza's phylogeography in different but relatively minor ways. These results suggest general principles that dictate the spatial dynamics of antigenically evolving pathogens and offer predictions for how changes in human ecology might affect influenza evolution.