Hamid spent part of his childhood in the United States, where he stayed from the age of 3 to 9 while his father, a university professor, was enrolled in a PhD program at Stanford University. He then moved with his family back to Lahore, Pakistan and attended the Lahore American School.
At the age of 18, Hamid returned to the United States to continue his education. He graduated from Princeton University summa cum laude in 1993, having studied under such writers as Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. Hamid wrote the first draft of his first novel for a fiction workshop taught by Morrison. He returned to Pakistan after college to continue working on it.
Hamid then attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1997. Finding corporate law boring, he repaid his student loans by working for several years as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in New York City. He was allowed to take three months off each year to write, and he used this time to complete his first novel Moth Smoke.
He moved to London in the summer of 2001, initially intending to stay only one year. Although he frequently returned to Pakistan to write, he continued to live in London for eight years, becoming a dual citizen of the United Kingdom in 2006. He moved to Lahore in 2009 with his wife Zahra and their daughter Dina, saying "I never believed in the role Pakistan plays as a villain on news shows. The Pakistan I knew was the out-of-character Pakistan, Pakistan without its makeup and plastic fangs, a working actor with worn-out shoes, a close family, and a hearty laugh."
He now divides his time between Pakistan and abroad, living between Lahore, New York, London, and Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece. Hamid has described himself as a "mongrel" and has said of his own writing that "a novel can often be a divided man’s conversation with himself."
Hamid's first novel, Moth Smoke, told the story of a marijuana-smoking ex-banker in post-nuclear-test Lahore who falls in love with his best friend's wife and becomes a heroin addict. It was published in 2000, and quickly became a cult hit in Pakistan and India. It was also a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award given to the best first novel in the US, and was adapted for television in Pakistan and as an operetta in Italy.
Moth Smoke had an innovative structure, using multiple voices, second person trial scenes, and essays on such topics as the role of air-conditioning in the lives of its main characters. Pioneering a hip, contemporary approach to South Asian fiction, it was considered by some critics to be "the most interesting novel that came out of [its] generation of subcontinent writing." In the New York Review of Books, Anita Desai noted:
One could not really continue to write, or read about, the slow seasonal changes, the rural backwaters, gossipy courtyards, and traditional families in a world taken over by gun-running, drug-trafficking, large-scale industrialism, commercial entrepreneurship, tourism, new money, nightclubs, boutiques... Where was the Huxley, the Orwell, the Scott Fitzgerald, or even the Tom Wolfe, Jay McInerney, or Brett Easton Ellis to record this new world? Mohsin Hamid's novel Moth Smoke, set in Lahore, is one of the first pictures we have of that world.
His second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, told the story of a Pakistani man who decides to leave his high-flying life in America after a failed love affair and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It was published in 2007 and became an international best seller, reaching #4 on the New York Times Best Seller list. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, won several awards including the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was translated into over 25 languages. The Guardian selected it as one of the books that defined the decade.
Like Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was formally experimentative. The novel used the unusual device of a dramatic monologue in which the Pakistani protagonist continually addresses an American listener who is never heard from directly. (Hamid has said The Fall by Albert Camus served as his model.) According to one commentator, because of this technique:
maybe we the readers are the ones who jump to conclusions; maybe the book is intended as a Rorschach to reflect back our unconscious assumptions. In our not knowing lies the novel's suspense... Hamid literally leaves us at the end in a kind of alley, the story suddenly suspended; it's even possible that some act of violence might occur. But more likely, we are left holding the bag of conflicting worldviews. We're left to ponder the symbolism of Changez having been caught up in the game of symbolism...a game we ourselves have been known to play.
In an interview in May 2007, Hamid said of the brevity of The Reluctant Fundamentalist: "I’d rather people read my book twice than only half-way through."
Hamid has also written on politics, art, literature, travel, and other topics. His journalism, essays, and stories have appeared in Time, The Guardian, Dawn, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, the Paris Review, and other publications.