For monitoring and reporting forest carbon stocks and fluxes, many countries in the tropics and subtropics rely on default values of forest aboveground biomass (AGB) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Inventories. Default IPCC forest AGB values originated from 2006, and are relatively crude estimates of average values per continent and ecological zone. The 2006 default values were based on limited plot data available at the time, methods for their derivation were not fully clear, and no distinction between successional stages was made. As part of the 2019 Refinement to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for GHG Inventories, we updated the default AGB values for tropical and subtropical forests based on AGB data from >25 000 plots in natural forests and a global AGB map where no plot data were available. We calculated refined AGB default values per continent, ecological zone, and successional stage, and provided a measure of uncertainty. AGB in tropical and subtropical forests varies by an order of magnitude across continents, ecological zones, and successional stage. Our refined default values generally reflect the climatic gradients in the tropics, with more AGB in wetter areas. AGB is generally higher in old-growth than in secondary forests, and higher in older secondary (regrowth >20 years old and degraded/logged forests) than in young secondary forests (⩽20 years old). While refined default values for tropical old-growth forest are largely similar to the previous 2006 default values, the new default values are 4.0–7.7-fold lower for young secondary forests. Thus, the refined values will strongly alter estimated carbon stocks and fluxes, and emphasize the critical importance of old-growth forest conservation. We provide a reproducible approach to facilitate future refinements and encourage targeted efforts to establish permanent plots in areas with data gaps.