Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts to Malcolm and Lillian Phillips on 13 March 1958. When he was four months old, his family moved to England and settled in Leeds, Yorkshire. In 1976, Phillips won a place at Queen's College, Oxford University, where he read English, graduating in 1979. While at Oxford, he directed numerous plays and spent his summers working as a stagehand at the Edinburgh Festival. On graduating, Phillips moved to Edinburgh, where he lived for a year, on the dole, whilst writing his first play, Strange Fruit (1980), which was taken up and produced by the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Phillips subsequently moved to London, where he wrote two more plays – Where There is Darkness (1982) and Shelter (1983) – that were staged at the Lyric Hammersmith.
At the age of 22, Phillips visited St. Kitts for the first time since his family had left the island in 1958. The journey provided the inspiration for his first novel, The Final Passage, which was published five years later. After publishing his second book, A State of Independence (1986), Phillips went on a one-month journey around Europe, which resulted in his 1987 collection of essays The European Tribe. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Phillips divided his time between England and St. Kitts while working on his novels Higher Ground (1989) and Cambridge (1991).
In 1990, Phillips took up a Visiting Writer position at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He remained at Amherst College for a further eight years, becoming the youngest English tenured Professor in the US when he was promoted to that position in 1995. During this time, he wrote what is perhaps his most well-known novel, Crossing the River (1993), which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. After taking up the position at Amherst, Phillips found himself doing "a sort of triangular thing" for a number of years, residing between England, St Kitts, and the U.S.
Finding this way of living both "incredibly exhausting" and "prohibitively expensive", Phillips ultimately decided to give up his residence in St. Kitts, though he says that he still makes regular visits to the island. In 1998, he joined Barnard College, Columbia University, as the Henry R. Luce Professor of Migration and Social Order. In 2005 he moved to Yale University, where he currently works as Professor of English. Phillips was made an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2000, and an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2011.