Born in Paris, France, and given the name Henry, he was the son of a well-to-do British newspaper correspondent working there and his French wife. Farman trained as a painter at the École des Beaux Arts, but quickly become obsessed with the new mechanical inventions that were rapidly appearing at the end of the 19th century. Since his family had the money, he was able to pursue this interest as an amateur sportsman. In the 1890s he became a championship cyclist, and at the turn of the century he discovered motor racing, competing for Renault in the Gordon Bennett Cup.
When Gabriel Voisin began to produce powered aircraft for sale in 1907, Farman was one of his first customers. He set numerous official records for both distance and duration. These include the first to fly a complete circuit of 1 kilometre (13 January 1908, winning the 50,000 franc Grand Prix d’Aviation offered by Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe) and 2 kilometres (21 March 1908). On the latter date he is also recorded as becoming the first ever aeroplane passenger, flown by Leon Delagrange. Later in 1908, on 30 October, Farman went on to make the first cross-country flight in Europe, flying from Châlons to Rheims (27 kilometres in 20 minutes).
After designing his own aeroplane, on 30 May 1908 he took Ernest Archdeacon for a 1,241 metres (4,072 ft) flight at Ghent in Belgium. Although his own flight as a passenger should take precedence there is some evidence that on or around this date he made the first flight with a woman passenger.
In 1909, he opened a flying school at Châlons-sur-Marne at which George Bertram Cockburn was the first pupil. The same year he made further record breaking flights of 180 kilometres in just over 3 hours (at Rheims on 27 August) and 232 kilometres in 4 hours 17 minutes and 53 seconds (at Mourmelon-le-Grand on 3 November). On 28 August, he was the pilot of the first 3-person flight when he carried 2 passengers for 10 kilometres.
In partnership with his two brothers Maurice and Richard (Dick), he built a highly successful and innovative aircraft manufacturing plant. Their 1914 model was used extensively for artillery observation and reconnaissance during World War I. The Farman Aircraft company’s Goliath was the first long-distance passenger airliner, beginning regular Paris-London (Croydon Airport) flights on 8 February 1919.
He was made a chevalier of the French Légion d’honneur (French: “Legion of Honour”) in 1919. He, along with Maurice, retired in 1937 when the French Popular Front government nationalised the aircraft industry; Farman’s company becoming part the Societe Nationale de Constructions Aeronautiques du Centre.
Henry Farman took French nationality in 1937. He died in Paris and is buried in the Cimetière de Passy in Paris.