Kessel was born in Villa Clara, Entre Ríos, Argentina, because of the constant journeys of his father, a Litvak doctor. From 1905 to 1908, Joseph Kessel lived the first years of his childhood in Orenburg, Russia, before the family moved to France in 1908. He studied in lycée Masséna, Nice and lycée Louis-le-Grand, Paris, and took part in the First World War as an aviator. He was also an aviator during the Second World War, assigned to the Free French 342 "Lorraine" bomber Squadron of the Royal Air Force, with Romain Gary, who was also a talented French novelist.
Kessel wrote several novels and books that were later represented in the cinema, notably Belle de Jour (by Luis Buñuel in 1967). In 1943 he and his nephew Maurice Druon translated Anna Marly's song Chant des Partisans into French from its original Russian. The song became one of the anthems of Free French Forces during the Second World War.
He was elected at the Académie française in 1962.
The Joseph-Kessel Prize (Prix Joseph Kessel) is a prestigious prize in French language literature, given to "a book of a high literary value written in French". The jury counts or has counted among its members Tahar Ben Jelloun, Jean-Marie Drot, Michèle Kahn, Pierre Haski, Gilles Lapouge, Michel Le Bris, Érik Orsenna, Patrick Rambaud, Jean-Christophe Rufin, André Velter and Olivier Weber.
- La steppe rouge (1922)
- L'équipage (1923)
- Au camp des vaincus ou la critique du 11 mai (1924)
- Mary de Cork (1925)
- Les captifs (1926; Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française)
- Nuits de princes (1927)
- Belle de Jour (1928; it inspired Luis Buñuel's 1967 movie of the same name)
- Vent de sable (1929)
- Fortune carrée (1932)
- Le coup de grâce (1931; made into the movie Sirocco in 1951 with Humphrey Bogart)
- La Passante du Sans-Souci (1936; turned into a movie by Jacques Rouffio in 1982)
- Hollywood, Ville mirage (Gallimard, NRF, 1936)
- L'Armée des ombres (1943; adapted for a movie by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1969)
- Bataillon du ciel (Sky Battalion), (1946; turned into a movie by Alexandre Esway in 1947): Free French SAS paratroopers in Brittany in Summer 1944
- Le tour du malheur (1950)
- La Vallée des Rubis (1955)
- Le lion (English translation: The Lion; 1958)
- Les mains du miracle (Gallimard, 1960). (English translation: The Man with the Miraculous Hands. Helen Weaver (translation). Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. 1961. OCLC 630284.)
- Les cavaliers (1967) (filmed as The Horsemen in 1971.
- Partout un ami (1972)
- Des hommes (1972)
- Les temps sauvages (1975)
- The escape