Shah was born in 1969 in New York City to Indian immigrants. Growing up, she shuttled between the northeastern United States, where her parents practiced medicine, and Mumbai and Bangalore, India, where her extended working-class family lived, developing a lifelong interest in inequality between and within societies. She holds a BA in journalism, philosophy, and neuroscience from Oberlin College. She lives in Baltimore with molecular ecologist Mark Bulmer and their two sons, Zakir and Kush.
Shah's writing, based on original reportage from around the world, from India and South Africa to Panama, Malawi, Cameroon, and Australia, has been featured on current affairs shows around the United States, as well as on the BBC and Australia's Radio National. A frequent keynote speaker at political conferences, Shah has lectured at universities and colleges across the country, including Columbia's Earth Institute, MIT, Harvard, Brown, Georgetown and elsewhere. Her writing on human rights, medicine, and politics have appeared in a range of magazines from Playboy, Salon, and Orion to The Progressive and Knight-Ridder. Her television appearances include A&E and the BBC, and she's consulted on many documentary film projects, from the ABC to Channel 4 in the UK. Shah is a former writing fellow of The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation. The annual human rights award, the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship, is given to someone who has done distinctive and courageous social justice work.
Her 2020 book, The Next Great Migration, describes both human migration and animal migration as a consistent pattern throughout the history of humanity and life on earth. It also describes the trend towards building border barriers such as the Trump Wall on the Mexico–United States border, and the harm inflicted by these structures.
- Between Fear and Hope. 1992. ISBN 1-879175-10-X. – editor
- Shah, Sonia (1999). Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire. ISBN 0-89608-575-9. – editor
- Shah, Sonia (2004). Crude: The Story of Oil. ISBN 1-58322-625-7.
- Shah, Sonia (2006). The Body Hunters. ISBN 1-56584-912-4.
- The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years. 2010. ISBN 978-0-374-23001-2.
- Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. 2016. ISBN 978-0-374-12288-1.
- The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move. 2020. ISBN 978-1-63557-197-4.