Jose Eduardo dos Santos was born in Luanda on 28 August 1942. His father was a bricklayer. Dos Santos was educated at the Liceu Salvador Carreia during the Portuguese colonial administration.
In 1961, dos Santos joined the MPLA in its fight for Angolan independence. He fled Angola later that year for exile in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he was a founding member and vice president of MPLA Youth, based in Kinshasa. In 1963, dos Santos was one of a group of students sent on MPLA scholarships to study in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). He graduated as a petroleum engineer in 1969 from the Institute of Oil and Gas in Baku. He completed a course in military communication shortly before returning to Angola in 1970, where he participated in the war against the Portuguese as a member of the Cabinda guerrilla front.