Formic acid contributes significantly to acid rain in remote environments1, 2. Direct sources of formic acid include human activities, biomass burning and plant leaves. Aside from these direct sources, sunlight-induced oxidation of non-methane hydrocarbons (largely of biogenic origin) is probably the largest source3, 4. However, model simulations substantially underpredict atmospheric formic acid levels5, 6, 7, indicating that not all sources have been included in the models. Here, we use satellite measurements of formic acid concentrations to constrain model simulations of the global formic acid budget. According to our simulations, 100–120 Tg of formic acid is produced annually, which is two to three times more than that estimated from known sources. We show that 90% of the formic acid produced is biogenic in origin, and largely sourced from tropical and boreal forests. We suggest that terpenoids—volatile organic compounds released by plants—are the predominant precursors. Model comparisons with independent observations of formic acid strengthen our conclusions, and provide indirect validation for the satellite measurements. Finally, we show that the larger formic acid emissions have a substantial impact on rainwater acidity, especially over boreal forests in the summer, where formic acid reduces pH by 0.25–0.5.