Vieuxtemps was born in Verviers, Belgium. He received his first violin instruction from his father and a local teacher. He gave his first public performance at the age of six, playing a concerto by Pierre Rode. Soon he was giving concerts in surrounding cities, including Liège and Brussels. He met the violinist Charles Auguste de Bériot in Brussels. He then began to study with Bériot. In 1829, Bériot took him to Paris. He had to return to Belgium the next year because of the July Revolution and Bériot's marriage to his mistress Maria Malibran. Back in Brussels, Vieuxtemps developed his violin technique on his own. He began playing with Pauline Viardot. A tour of Germany in 1833 brought friendship with Louis Spohr and with Robert Schumann. During the following decade he visited various European cities. He impressed audiences and famous musicians such as Hector Berlioz and Paganini.
Vieuxtemps wanted to become a composer as well. He took lessons with the respected Simon Sechter in Vienna and spent the winter of 1835–1836 studying composition with Anton Reicha in Paris. His first violin concerto, later published as Concerto No. 2, dates from this time.
Vieuxtemps continued to compose with great success and perform throughout Europe. He played with the pianist Sigismond Thalberg in the United States. He was particularly admired in Russia. He lived there between 1846 and 1851 as a court musician of Tsar Nicholas I and soloist in the Imperial Theatre. He founded the violin school of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. In 1871, he returned to Belgium to be a Professor at the Brussels Conservatory.
A paralytic stroke disabled his right arm two years later. He moved to Paris again. Although he seemed to be slowly recovering from his stroke, another one in 1879 ended his career as a violinist for good. He spent his last years in a sanatorium in Mustapha Supérieur, Algeria. He continued to compose.