Kostanay was founded by Russian settlers in 1879 and named Nikolaevsk, in honor of Tsar Nicholas II. In 1888, the town had more than 3,000 inhabitants involved in the building of a mill and a brewery, which are still operational. In 1893, Kostanay was granted city status. The Red Army took control in 1918 and changed the city's name to Kostanay. The Kostanay Region was established in 1936 with its administrative center in Kostanay. In 2009, the city population was 214,916 (2009 Census results).
In Kostanay, there are five institutions of higher education. There are also 22 high schools which educate over 12,200 students. The state network of culture lists 381 libraries, 201 club establishments, 8 museums, and 2 theatres. Athletic facilities include 2 sports arenas, 26 stadiums, 10 sports complexes and 567 sports halls.
Kostanay has a rich historical-cultural heritage. The regional center includes a Sunni mosque, the Regional Administration Building, Kostanay State University, the Kostanay Regional Memorial Museum of Altynsarin, the Kazakh Drama Theatre, Central Square and a railway station. Historical monuments include the Ybyrai Altynsarin monument, the Akhmet Baitursynov monument, a memorial dedicated to victims of the Second World War, the "Execution wall" (where Alexander Kolchak's army officers were executed by Red Army soldiers), and the Alexander Pushkin monument.
Kostanay is connected by road with the following cities in Russia: Chelyabinsk, Magnitogorsk, Troitsk, Yekaterinburg, Kurgan and Tyumen. It is also connected to Astana and Almaty in Kazakhstan. Fifty-three railway stations carry passengers and cargo from the city. Oil is delivered by rail from Russia as well as oil refineries in Kazakhstan.
Kostanay International Airport handles common and charter flights to many cities in Kazakhstan, former Soviet republics, Germany (Frankfurt and Hanover), the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and other countries. The airport also functions as a local port of entry and customs checkpoint.
Kostanay is home to the FC Tobol football club, based in the Kostanay Central Stadium, which participates in the Kazakhstan Super League. Kostanay also has a basketball team, BK Tobol Kostanay, which participates in the Kazakhstan Basketball Cup. The city has an ice rink for winter sports, and in 2016, a team participated in the national bandy championship in Khromtau for junior players born in 1999-2000.