The district is located in the northeast of Devon. It is bordered to the south by Mid Devon District and the Southwest District of Torridge. To the north lies the Bristol Channel, to the west the Bideford Bay. To the east is the county of Somerset. The district has a share in Exmoor National Park and is situated on the River Taw. In addition, the nature reserve is located in the district of North Devon AONM through which the long-distance hiking South West Coast Path runs.
The district was formed on 1 April 1974 and evolved from the merger of the Municipal Borough of Barnstaple, Ilfracombe and Lynton urban districts of and the Rural District of Barnstaple and South Molton.
Through the district run the A361 (Link Road), the A39 (Atlantic Highway) as well as the A399 and the A377.