Chris Carter was born on 4 May 1952, and brought up in the Auckland suburb of Panmure. He was educated at St Peter's College, Auckland and at the University of Auckland where he received an MA(Hons) in history.
Before entering politics, Carter had served as a teacher and as a poultry farmer. His partner is Peter Kaiser, a headmaster, and they have been together for over 40 years. On 10 February 2007, Carter and Kaiser were joined in the first civil union for a Cabinet Minister or Member of Parliament since civil unions in New Zealand were introduced after legislation was passed in December 2004.
Carter was the first openly gay man ever appointed as a New Zealand Cabinet minister. He has been a strong advocate of gay equality for some time, and has continued this role since entering Parliament. He also started one of the first branches of New Zealand Rainbow Labour for centre-left lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people (LGBT) and others during the 1996–1999 term, after having lost the newly created Waipareira electorate to National's Brian Neeson by just 107 votes, and not having been placed on the Labour list for the election.
At the 2005 election, Carter was re-elected to his seat with 59.4% of the vote, a majority of 10,447.
Labour lost power in the 2008 election. Carter was re-elected, but his majority was almost halved to 5,298.
On 14 June 2010, 4 days after the release of ministerial credit card records, Carter along with two other MPs Shane Jones MP and Mita Ririnui MP (Lab – Lists) were demoted by Opposition Leader Phil Goff MP (Mount Roskill) for misuse of such credit cards. In the case of Carter, he was accused of purchasing personal items with the card, which was outside the rules for Ministerial expenditure as a minister under the former Clark government over a six-year period. Carter has since repaid the money in full, a total of $26 ($NZ). His main dispute with Phil Goff was over allegations by Goff that Carter had travelled too much as a Cabinet Minister. All of Carter's travel as a minister was official travel and approved by Cabinet (of which Goff was a member). Carter's demotion included removal from the front bench, and loss of the shadow portfolio of Foreign Affairs. Carter subsequently speculated publicly about whether he would continue as a Member of Parliament.
As a cabinet minister, Carter was entitled to the title of The Honourable and became The Hon. Mr Chris Carter, which is a title granted for the rest of his life.
On 29 July 2010 Carter was suspended from the Labour Party caucus for allegedly being behind an anonymous letter sent around the press gallery claiming there was a leadership challenge against Phil Goff; a charge he has since admitted. On 17 August 2010, Speaker Lockwood Smith announced that Chris Carter was officially an independent MP.
In early September 2011 Carter was appointed as director of the Governance Unit of the United Nations mission in Kabul, Afghanistan, with responsibility in assisting the Afghan government in fighting corruption. His parliamentary seat remained vacant until the 26 November 2011 election as there is no requirement to hold a by-election when there is less than six months to a general election.
On 18 October 2013, Carter was waiting for a colleague to leave his compound in Kabul when a suicide bomber attacked a passing military convoy on the street some 25 metres (82 ft) away; he was separated from the blast by a glass wall. If his Australian colleague had not been late, they could have been the victims of the attack themselves. Carter considered it a "close shave". In September 2015 Chris Carter was appointed as the Senior UN Advisor for Rakhine State in Myanmar after serving for 4 years as a senior UNDP manager in Afghanistan. His new role is to lead and coordinate development by UN Agencies operating in Rakhine State, a region of Myanmar marked by serious religious and ethnic conflict between Buddhist and Muslim communities.