Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan on 8 November 1954, the son of Shizuo Ishiguro, a physical oceanographer, and his wife Shizuko. At the age of five, Ishiguro and his family (including his two sisters) left Japan and moved to Guildford, Surrey, as his father was invited for research at the National Institute of Oceanography. He did not return to visit Japan until 1989, nearly 30 years later, as a participant in the Japan Foundation Short-Term visitors Program. In an interview with Kenzaburō Ōe, Ishiguro stated that the Japanese settings of his first two novels were imaginary: "I grew up with a very strong image in my head of this other country, a very important other country to which I had a strong emotional tie… In England I was all the time building up this picture in my head, an imaginary Japan."
He attended Stoughton Primary School and then Woking County Grammar School in Surrey. After finishing school, he took a gap year and travelled through the United States and Canada, while writing a journal and sending demo tapes to record companies. In 1974, he began studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury, graduating in 1978 with a Bachelor of Arts (honours) in English and Philosophy. After spending a year writing fiction, he resumed his studies at the University of East Anglia where he studied with Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter, and gained a Master of Arts in Creative Writing in 1980. His thesis became his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, published in 1982. He became a British citizen in 1983.