In 1987 a plan to create an extensive mobility scheme for higher education was approved by the European Community (EC). One part of this was the Erasmus programme - for students in order to provide the opportunity to spend part of their studies abroad.

In 1989 the Erasmus Bureau invited 32 former Erasmus Students for an evaluation meeting in Gent, Belgium. This meeting was a starting point for Erasmus Student Network. The problems that became obvious in the evaluation were the main tasks for the founders of ESN to work on. Behind all this stood the idea of "students helping students", which is still the most important motto of ESN volunteers.

On 16th of October 1989, the first section using the name Erasmus Student Network, was founded in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Following that, ESN sections were founded in various European universities, and with financial support from the EC, in October, 1990 the meeting for the official founding of ESN International was organised in Copenhagen, Denmark with 49 participants from almost all member states of the EC. ESN International became a legal association. Desiree Majoor from Utrecht, Netherlands was the first president in ESN history.

By 1994 ESN already had 60 sections in 14 countries and it was growing year by year.

20 years after the creation, ESN network consists of 280 sections in 32 European countries as well as in Azerbaijan. New technology has tremendously improved collaboration between sections and frequent meetings strengthen the ties between ESN members as well as serve the possibility to exchange ideas and work together for a better future.

In September 2005, ESN established an official seat in Brussels, where now the International Board, the Secretariat, and interns are working full time.