There are two candidates for the discovery of Franz Josef Land. The first was the Norwegian sealing vessel Spidsbergen, with captain
Nils Fredrik Rønnbeck and harpooner Johan Petter Aidijärvi. They sailed northeast from
Svalbard in 1865 searching for suitable sealing sites and found land which was most likely Franz Josef Land. The account is believed to be factual, but an announcement of the discovery was never made, and their sighting therefore remained unknown to subsequent explorers. It was at the time common to keep newly discovered areas secret, as their discovery was aimed at exploiting them for sealing and whaling, and exposure would cause competitors to flock to the site.
 Russian scientist N. G. Schilling proposed in 1865 that the ice conditions in the Barents Sea could only be explained if there was another land mass in the area, but he never received funding for an expedition.
Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1872–74 was the first to announce the discovery of the islands. Led by
Julius von Payer and
Karl Weyprecht of
Austria–Hungary on board the
schooner Tegetthoff, the expedition's primary goal was to find the
north-east passage and its secondary goal to reach the
 Starting in July 1872,
 the vessel drifted from
Novaya Zemlya to a new landmass,
 which they named in honor of
Franz Joseph I (1830–1916),
Emperor of Austria.
 The expedition contributed significantly to the mapping and exploration of the islands. The next expedition to spot the archipelago was the Dutch Expedition for the Exploration of the Barents Sea, on board the schooner Willem Barents. Constrained by the ice, they never reached land.
Benjamin Leigh Smith's expedition in 1880, aboard the
barque Eira, followed a route from
Spitsbergen to Franz Josef Land,
 landing on
Bell Island in August. Leigh Smith explored the vicinity and set up a base at Eira Harbour, before exploring towards
McClintock Island. He returned the following year in the same vessel, landing at Grey Bay on George Land.
 The explorers were stopped by ice at
Cape Flora, and Eira sank on 21 August. They built a cottage and stayed the winter,
 to be rescued by the British vessels Kara and Hope the following summer.
 These early expeditions concentrated their explorations on the southern and central parts of the archipelago.
The Nansen–Jackson meeting at
, 17 June 1896 (a posed photograph taken hours after the initial meeting)
Nansen's Fram expedition was an 1893–1896 attempt by the Norwegian explorer
Fridtjof Nansen to reach the geographical North Pole by harnessing the natural east–west current of the
Arctic Ocean. Departing in 1893, Fram drifted from the
New Siberian Islands for one and a half years before Nansen became impatient and set out on a polar march with
Hjalmar Johansen. They gave up on reaching the pole and instead returned to Franz Josef Land. They were thus able to establish that there was no large landmass north of the islands.
 In the mean time the
Jackson–Harmsworth Expedition set off in 1894, set up a base on
Bell Island, and stayed for the winter.
 The following season they spent exploring.
 By pure chance, at
Cape Flora Nansen stumbled upon
Frederick George Jackson, who was able to transport him back to Norway.
 Nansen and Jackson explored the northern, eastern and western portions of the islands.
 Once the basic geography of Franz Josef Land had become apparent, expeditions shifted to using the archipelago as a basis to reach the North Pole. The first such attempt was conducted by the
National Geographic Society-sponsored American journalist
Walter Wellman in 1898.
 Two Norwegians stayed the winter, but insufficient fuel caused one to die.
 Wellman returned the following year, but the polar expedition itself was quickly abandoned when they lost most of their equipment.
 Italian nobleman
Luigi Amedeo organized the next expedition in 1899, on the
 They stayed the winter,
 and in February and again in March 1900 set out towards the pole, but failed to get far.
The Stella Polare
was trapped and threatened to sink. The crew were obliged to land with the utmost haste and to secure materials for building a dwelling.
Evelyn Baldwin, sponsored by
William Ziegler, organized the
Ziegler Polar Expedition of 1901. Setting up a base on
Alger Island, he stayed the winter exploring the area, but failed to press northwards. The expedition was largely regarded as an utter failure by the exploration and scientific community, which cited the lack of proper management. Unhappy with the outcome, Ziegler organized a new expedition, for which he appointed
Anthony Fiala, second-in-command in the first expedition, as leader.
 It arrived in 1903 and spent the winter. Their ship, America, was crushed beyond repair in December and disappeared in January. Still, they made two attempts towards the pole, both of which were quickly abandoned.
 They were forced to stay another year, making yet another unsuccessful attempt at the pole, before being evacuated in 1905 by the
The first Russian expedition was carried out in 1901, when the icebreaker
Yermak traveled to the islands.
 The next expedition, led by hydrologist
Georgy Sedov, embarked in 1912 but did not reach the archipelago until the following year because of ice. Among its scientific contributions were the first snow measurements of the archipelago, and the determination that changes of the
magnetic field occur in cycles of fifteen years.
 It also conducted topographical surveys of the surrounding area.
 Scurvy set in during the second winter, killing a machinist. Despite lacking prior experience or sufficient provisions, Sedov insisted on pressing forward with a march to the pole. His condition deteriorated and he died on 6 March.
anchored at Tepliz Bay
Hertha was sent to explore the area, and its captain, I. I. Islyamov hoisted a
Russian iron flag at Cape Flora and proclaimed Russian sovereignty over the archipelago. The act was motivated by the ongoing
First World War and Russian fears of the
Central Powers establishing themselves there. The world's first Arctic flight took place in August, 1914, when Polish aviator (one of the first pilots of the Russian Navy)
Jan Nagórski overflew Franz Josef Land in search of Sedov's group. Andromeda set out for the same purpose; while failing to locate them, the crew were able to finally determine the non-existence of Peterman Land and King Oscar Land, suspected lands north of the islands.
Soviet expeditions were sent almost yearly from 1923.
 Franz Josef Land had been considered
terra nullius - land belonging to no one - but on 15 April 1926 the Soviet Union declared its
annexation of the archipelago. Emulating Canada's declaration of the sector principle, they pronounced all land between the Soviet mainland and the North Pole to be Soviet territory. This principle has never been internationally recognized.
 Both Italy and Norway protested.
 Norway was first and foremost concerned about its economic interests in the area, in a period when Norwegian hunters and whalers were also being barred from the
White Sea, Novaya Zemlya and Greenland; the Soviet government, however, largely remained passive, and did not evict Norwegian hunting ships during the following years. Nor did the Soviets interfere when, in 1926, several foreign ships entered the waters in search of the disappeared airship
Norway attempted both a diplomatic solution and a
Lars Christensen-financed expedition to establish a weather station to gain economic control over the islands, but both failed in 1929.
 Instead the Soviet icebreaker
Sedov set out, led by
Otto Schmidt, landed in
Tikhaya Bay, and began construction of a permanent base.
 The Soviet government proposed renaming the archipelago Fridtjof Nansen Land in 1930, but the name never came into use.
 In 1930 the Norwegian
Bratvaag Expedition visited the archipelago, but was asked by Soviet authorities to respect Soviet territorial water in the future. Other expeditions that year were the Norwegian-Swedish balloon expedition led by
Hans Wilhelmsson Ahlmann on Quest and the German
 Except for a German weather station emplaced during the
Second World War, these were the last Western expeditions to Franz Josef Land until 1990.
Soviet activities grew rapidly following the
International Polar Year in 1932. The archipelago was circumnavigated, people were landed on Victoria Island, and a
topographical map was completed. In 1934–35 geological and glaciological expeditions were carried out, cartographic flights were flown, and up to sixty people stayed the winters between 1934 and 1936, which also saw the first birth. The first
drifting ice station was set up out of Rudolf Island in 1936.
 An airstrip was then constructed on a glacier on the island and by 1937 the winter population hit 300.
Activity dwindled during the
Second World War and only a small group of men were kept at Rudolf Island, remaining unsupplied throughout the war.
 They never discovered that a German weather station, named Schatzgrüber, had been established on
Alexandra Land. However, it was evacuated in 1944 after the men were struck by
Cold War produced renewed Soviet interest in the islands because of their strategic military significance. The islands were regarded as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier". The site of the former German weather station was selected as the location of a Soviet aerodrome and military base,
Nagurskoye. With the advent of
intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union changed its military strategy in 1956, abolishing the strategic need for an airbase on the archipelago. The
International Geophysical Year of 1957 and 1958 gave a new rise to the scientific interest in the archipelago and an airstrip was built on Heiss Island in 1956. The following year the geophysical
Ernst Krenkel Observatory was established there.
 Activity at Tikhaya Bay was closed in 1959.
Because of the islands' military significance, the Soviet Union closed off the area to foreign researchers, although Soviet researchers carried out various expeditions, including in geophysics, studies of the
ionosphere, marine biology, botany, ornithology and glaciology.
 The Soviet Union opened up the archipelago for international activities from 1990, with foreigners having fairly straightforward access.
 The base on Graham Bell Island was abandoned in the early 1990s. The military presence at Nagurskoye was reduced to that of a border post, and the number of people stationed at Krenkel Observatory were reduced from seventy to a dozen.
 The archipelago and the surrounding waters was declared a
nature reserve in April 1994. The opening of the archipelago also saw the introduction of tourism, most of which takes place on Russian-operated icebreakers.
 In 2011, in a move to better accommodate tourism in the archipelago, the
Russian Arctic National Park was expanded to include Franz Josef Land.
In 2012 the
Russian Air Force decided to reopen Graham Bell Airfield as part of a series of reopenings of air bases in the Arctic.
 A major new base, named the Arctic Trefoil for its three lobed structure, was constructed on Alexandra Land. It can maintain 150 soldiers for 18 months and has an area of 14,000 square meters.
In 2017, Russian president
Vladimir Putin visited the archipelago to protect Russia's interests in the Arctic.