Ling was born in Sacramento, California. Ling's father, Doug, is a Chinese immigrant, born in China during the 1920s; her mother Mary Mei-yan (née Wang) is a Taiwanese immigrant from Tainan, Taiwan, and formerly served as the head of the Los Angeles office of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs. Her grandfather, who was from Guangzhou, Guangdong, was one of the first Chinese students allowed to study in the United States in the 1930s. He received his graduate degree from New York University and an M.B.A degree from University of Colorado. He struggled to find a job in the United States and eventually opened the first Chinese restaurant in Folsom, California.
Ling was educated at Del Campo High School, a public high school in Fair Oaks, California in 1991, followed by the University of Southern California. Ling chose to leave USC before graduating, entering the professional sphere at a young age as a reporter for Channel One News, and electing to "find her education by visiting different countries instead." Speaking to USC students in 2016, Ling explained, "I think traveling is the best education. If there’s one takeaway here tonight, it’s to travel … I’m convinced that you are better, smarter, more marketable as a job candidate if you travel." She is fluent in Spanish.
She joined The View on August 2, 1999 after beating out a reported 12,000 hopefuls who had auditioned to replace Debbie Matenopoulos, but left the show after three and a half years towards the end of 2002 to go back to international reporting. She was responsible for proposing segments like investing for women, and, according to Ling, her goal was to say one thing each day that would make people think, whether it made them cheer or made them throw things at their TV. She drew both fire and praise for her comments after the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which she said, "What happened to the United States was a catastrophic event and the worst terrorist attack in human history. Yet maybe before we seek revenge, we should ask the question – why should anyone want to make such an attack on the U.S.?"
Ling accepted an offer to host National Geographic Ultimate Explorer. In 2005, the show moved to the National Geographic Channel and returned to its original name, National Geographic Explorer. Ling has covered the drug war in Colombia, investigated the notorious MS-13 gang, and explored the culture of U.S. prisons. She also was allowed to travel into North Korea as part of a medical missionary group, where she and a film team were able to document a rare look into North Korea. The trip was documented in the 2007 National Geographic documentary "Inside North Korea".
On January 3, 2007, Ling announced her engagement to radiation oncologist Paul Song. They married on May 26, 2007, in Los Angeles, California. The wedding party included guests such as Connie Chung, one of Lisa's personal heroes, and actresses Kelly Hu and Diane Farr. On June 7, 2009, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from National University, after giving the commencement speech there. In October 2012 Ling announced on Anderson Cooper's talk show that she and her husband were expecting their first child, a baby girl. She gave birth to a daughter named Jett Ling Song on March 8, 2013. She gave birth to a second child, a daughter named Ray Ling Song on June 6, 2016. The family resides in Santa Monica, California.
In December 2008, CNN's award-winning documentary Planet in Peril featured Ling in the series' second installment, called "Battlelines". She was a correspondent that tracked excessive shark fishing in Costa Rica, elephant poaching in Chad, and gave people an inside look at the battle for the control over oil in Nigeria. In 2010 Ling co-founded the website SecretSocietyOfWomen.com, a forum for women where they can share their problems anonymously.
Her younger sister, Laura Ling, also a Journalist, was managing Editor of Vanguard at Current TV and currently a host and reporter on E! Network. In March 2009 Laura and her colleague Euna Lee were detained by North Korea for illegal entry into the country. They had been attempting to film refugees along the border with China. In June, they were sentenced to 12 years in a labor prison for illegal entry into North Korea, and unspecified hostile acts. North Korea released Laura and Euna on August 4, 2009 after a visit from former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Ling and Laura went on to collaborate on a book, Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her Home, published in May 2010.
On February 16, 2011, her show Our America with Lisa Ling premiered on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. It ran for five seasons.
On April 14, 2014, CNN announced that Ling will host a new documentary series, This is Life with Lisa Ling, to join its primetime lineup. The show premiered on September 28, 2014.