Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of Agnes Mary (née McGuire) and sports journalist Bill Bryson Sr. His mother was of Irish descent. He had an older brother, Michael (1942–2012), and a sister, Mary Jane Elizabeth. In 2006 Bryson published The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a humorous account of his childhood years in Des Moines.
Bryson attended Drake University for two years before dropping out in 1972, deciding instead to backpack around Europe for four months. He returned to Europe the following year with a high-school friend, Matt Angerer (the pseudonymous Stephen Katz). Bryson wrote about some of his experiences from this trip in his book Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe.
Bryson first visited Britain in 1973 during his tour of Europe and decided to stay after landing a job working in a psychiatric hospital—the now-defunct Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water, Surrey. He met a nurse there named Cynthia Billen, whom he married. They moved to Bryson's hometown of Des Moines, Iowa in 1975 so that Bryson could complete his college degree at Drake University. In 1977 they settled in Britain.
He worked as a journalist, first for the Bournemouth Evening Echo and eventually became chief copy editor of the business section of The Times and then deputy national news editor of the business section of The Independent. He left journalism in 1987, three years after the birth of his third child. Bryson started writing independently and in 1990 their fourth child, Samuel, was born.
He has moved around the UK and lived in Virginia Water (Surrey), Purewell (Dorset), Burton (Dorset), Kirkby Malham (North Yorkshire, in the 1980s and '90s), and the Old Rectory in Wramplingham, Norfolk (2003–2013). He currently lives in rural Hampshire and maintains a small flat in South Kensington, London. From 1995 to 2003 he lived in Hanover, New Hampshire, USA.
Although able to apply for British citizenship, Bryson said in 2010 that he had declined a citizenship test, declaring himself "too cowardly" to take it. However, in 2014, he said that he was preparing to take it and in the prologue to his 2015 book The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island he describes doing so, in Eastleigh. His citizenship award was in Winchester and he now holds dual nationality.
While living in the US in the 1990s Bryson wrote a column for a British newspaper for several years, reflecting on humorous aspects of his repatriation in the United States. These columns were selected and adapted to become his book I'm a Stranger Here Myself, alternatively titled Notes from a Big Country in Britain, Canada, and Australia. During his time in the United States, Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym), about which he wrote the book A Walk in the Woods. In the 2015 film adaptation of A Walk in the Woods, Bryson is portrayed by Academy Award winner Robert Redford and Katz is portrayed by Nick Nolte (Bryson is portrayed as being much older than he was at the time of his actual walk).
In 2003, in conjunction with World Book Day, British voters chose Bryson's book Notes from a Small Island as that which best sums up British identity and the state of the nation. In the same year, he was appointed a Commissioner for English Heritage.
His popular science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything is 500 pages long and explores not only the histories and current statuses of the sciences, but also reveals their humble and often humorous beginnings. Although one "top scientist" is alleged to have jokingly described the book as "annoyingly free of mistakes", Bryson himself makes no such claim and a list of some reported errors in the book is available online.
In November 2006, Bryson interviewed the then British prime minister, Tony Blair, on the state of science and education.
Bryson has also written two popular works on the history of the English language — The Mother Tongue and Made in America — and, more recently, an update of his guide to usage, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words (published in its first edition as The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words in 1983).
In 2012 Bryson sued his agent, Jed Mattes Inc., in New York County Supreme Court claiming they "failed to perform some of the most fundamental duties of an agent". The case was settled out of court, with part of the settlement being that Bryson agree not to discuss it.
In 2005 Bryson was appointed chancellor of Durham University, succeeding the late Sir Peter Ustinov, and became more active with student activities than is common for holders of that post, even appearing in a Durham student film and promoting litter picks in the city. He had praised Durham as "a perfect little city" in Notes from a Small Island. In October 2010, it was announced that Bryson would step down at the end of 2011.
In May 2007, he became the president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. His first area of focus in this role was the establishment of an anti-littering campaign across England. He discussed the future of the countryside with Richard Mabey, Sue Clifford, Nicholas Crane, and Richard Girling at CPRE's Volunteer Conference in November 2007.
Bryson has received numerous awards for his ability to communicate science with passion and enthusiasm. In 2004, he won the prestigious Aventis Prize for best general science book that year, with A Short History of Nearly Everything. In 2005, the book won the EU Descartes Prize for science communication. In 2005 he received the President's Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry for advancing the cause of the chemical sciences. In 2007, he won the Bradford Washburn Award from the Museum of Science in Boston, MA for contributions to the popularization of science. In 2012, he received the Kenneth B. Myer Award from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience in Melbourne, Australia.
With the Royal Society of Chemistry the Bill Bryson prize for Science Communication was established in 2005. The competition engages students from around the world in explaining science to non-experts.
He was awarded an honorary OBE for his contribution to literature on 13 December 2006. The following year, he was awarded the James Joyce Award by the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin. After he received British citizenship his OBE was made substantive.
In 2011 he won the Golden Eagle Award from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild. On 22 November 2012, Durham University officially renamed the Main Library the Bill Bryson Library for his contributions as the university's 11th chancellor (2005–11).
Bryson was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2013, becoming the first non-Briton upon whom this honour has been conferred. His biography at the Society reads: "Bill Bryson is a popular author who is driven by a deep curiosity for the world we live in. Bill's books and lectures demonstrate an abiding love for science and an appreciation for its social importance. His international bestseller, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), is widely acclaimed for its accessible communication of science and has since been adapted for children."
In 2006 Frank Cownie, the mayor of Des Moines, awarded Bryson the key to the city and announced that October 21, 2006 would be known as "Bill Bryson, The Thunderbolt Kid, Day".
In January 2007, he was the Schwartz Visiting Fellow at the Pomfret School in Connecticut.Honorary Doctorate, The Open University, 2002.
Honorary Doctor of Civil Law, Durham University, 2004.
Honorary Doctorate, Bournemouth University, 2005.
Honorary Doctorate, University of St. Andrews, 2005.
DLitt, University of Leeds, 2005.
Honorary Doctorate, University of Leicester, 2009.
Doctor of Humane Letters, Drake University, 2009.
Honorary doctorate, King's College London, November 13, 2012. According to King's site, the award was relating to: "Bill Bryson OBE: the UK's highest-selling author of non-fiction, acclaimed as a science communicator, historian and man of letters."
Honorary Doctorate, University of Westminster, 2015.
Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, University of Iowa, May 2016.
Honorary Doctorate for services to literature, University of Winchester, October 2016.
Bryson has written the following books: