Schinz was born at Zurich and studied medicine at Würzburg and Jena, returning to Zurich in 1798 to practice. In 1804 he became a teacher at the medical institute, and in 1833 he became extraordinary professor of natural history at the university of Zurich.
Schinz was also curator of the natural history society of Zurich, and was the author of many important zoological works between 1824 and 1852. These included Das Thierreich (1821-4), Naturgeschichte und Abbildungen der Reptilien (1833-4), and Europäsche Fauna (1840). Karl Joseph Brodtmann lithographed his plates.