Commodity crop expansion, for both global and domestic urban markets, follows multiple land change pathways entailing direct and indirect deforestation, and results in various social and environmental impacts. Here we compare six published case studies of rapid commodity crop expansion within forested tropical regions. Across cases, between 1.7% and 89.5% of new commodity cropland was sourced from forestlands. Four main factors controlled pathways of commodity crop expansion: (i) the availability of suitable forestland, which is determined by forest area, agroecological or accessibility constraints, and land use policies, (ii) economic and technical characteristics of agricultural systems, (iii) differences in constraints and strategies between small-scale and large-scale actors, and (iv) variable costs and benefits of forest clearing. When remaining forests were unsuitable for agriculture and/or policies restricted forest encroachment, a larger share of commodity crop expansion occurred by conversion of existing agricultural lands, and land use displacement was smaller. Expansion strategies of large-scale actors emerge from context-specific balances between the search for suitable lands; transaction costs or conflicts associated with expanding into forests or other state-owned lands versus smallholder lands; net benefits of forest clearing; and greater access to infrastructure in already-cleared lands. We propose five hypotheses to be tested in further studies: (i) land availability mediates expansion pathways and the likelihood that land use is displaced to distant, rather than to local places; (ii) use of already-cleared lands is favored when commodity crops require access to infrastructure; (iii) in proportion to total agricultural expansion, large-scale actors generate more clearing of mature forests than smallholders; (iv) property rights and land tenure security influence the actors participating in commodity crop expansion, the form of land use displacement, and livelihood outcomes; (v) intensive commodity crops may fail to spare land when inducing displacement. We conclude that understanding pathways of commodity crop expansion is essential to improve land use governance.