Phytochrome photosensors control a vast gene network in streptophyte plants, acting as master regulators of diverse growth and developmental processes throughout the life cycle. In contrast with their absence in known chlorophyte algal genomes and most sequenced prasinophyte algal genomes, a phytochrome is found in Micromonas pusilla, a widely distributed marine picoprasinophyte (<2 microm cell diameter). Together with phytochromes identified from other prasinophyte lineages, we establish that prasinophyte and streptophyte phytochromes share core light-input and signaling-output domain architectures except for the loss of C-terminal response regulator receiver domains in the streptophyte phytochrome lineage. Phylogenetic reconstructions robustly support the presence of phytochrome in the common progenitor of green algae and land plants. These analyses reveal a monophyletic clade containing streptophyte, prasinophyte, cryptophyte, and glaucophyte phytochromes implying an origin in the eukaryotic ancestor of the Archaeplastida. Transcriptomic measurements reveal diurnal regulation of phytochrome and bilin chromophore biosynthetic genes in Micromonas. Expression of these genes precedes both light-mediated phytochrome redistribution from the cytoplasm to the nucleus and increased expression of photosynthesis-associated genes. Prasinophyte phytochromes perceive wavelengths of light transmitted farther through seawater than the red/far-red light sensed by land plant phytochromes. Prasinophyte phytochromes also retain light-regulated histidine kinase activity lost in the streptophyte phytochrome lineage. Our studies demonstrate that light-mediated nuclear translocation of phytochrome predates the emergence of land plants and likely represents a widespread signaling mechanism in unicellular algae.