Born Johan Verner Ölund in the village of Nyby, Bjurholm Municipality, Västerbotten County, Sweden, at age thirteen his family emigrated to the United States.
As a young man he pursued a career in theater, at first working on set design while developing his acting skills. Trained as a dramatic actor, in 1906, he was signed to tour the country with the troupe led by actress Alla Nazimova.
After several years in theater, including appearances on Broadway as Warner Oland, in 1912 he made his silent film debut in Pilgrim's Progress, a film based on the John Bunyan novel. It would be another three years before he returned to film work with a role in The Romance of Elaine, an adventure film starring the extremely popular Pearl White. As a result of his training as a Shakespearean actor and his easy adaptation to a sinister look, he was much in demand as a villain and in ethnic roles. He made several more films with Pearl White including his first portrayal of an oriental character in her 1919 film, The Lightning Raider. Over the next fifteen years he appeared in more than thirty films, including a major role in 1927's The Jazz Singer, one of the first talkies produced.
Oland's facial features, aided by makeup, allowed him to easily play the part of Asian characters. He portrayed a variety of Asian characters in "yellowface" in several movies before being offered the leading role in the 1929 film, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu as the first onscreen portrayal of the title character. A box office success, the film made Oland a star and during the next two years, he portrayed the evil Dr. Fu Manchu in three more films. Firmly locked into such roles, he was cast as Charlie Chan in the 1931 international detective mystery film, Charlie Chan Carries On and then in director Josef von Sternberg's 1932 classic film Shanghai Express opposite Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong.
Although Oland did act in other films, the enormous worldwide box office success of his Charlie Chan film led to a Charlie Chan industry, with Oland starring in sixteen films in total. Oland was also the first actor to play a werewolf in a movie, in Werewolf of London (1935) as the werewolf who bites the protagonist, played by Henry Hull.