Banks joined Chesterfield in March 1953, and played for their youth team in the 1956 FA Youth Cup final. He made his first team debut in November 1958, and was sold to Leicester City for £7,000 in July 1959. He played in four cup finals for the club, as they were beaten in the 1961 and 1963FA Cup finals, before winning the League Cup in 1964 and finishing as finalists in 1965. Despite this success, and his World Cup win in 1966, he was dropped by Leicester and sold on to Stoke City for £50,000 in April 1967. In the 1970 World Cup, he made one of the game's great saves to prevent a Pelé goal, but was absent due to illness as England were beaten by West Germany at the quarter-final stage.
Banks was Stoke City's goalkeeper in the 1972 League Cup win—the club's only major honour. He was still Stoke and England's number one when a car crash in October 1972 cost him both the sight in his right eye and eventually his professional career. He played two last seasons in the United States for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 1977 and 1978, and despite only having vision in one eye, was NASL Goalkeeper of the Year in 1977 after posting the best defensive record in the league. He briefly entered management with Telford United, but left the game in December 1980.
Regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, Banks was named FWA Footballer of the Year in 1972, and was named FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year on six occasions. The IFFHS named Banks the second-best goalkeeper of the 20th century, after Lev Yashin (1st) and ahead of Dino Zoff (3rd).
Banks was born in Abbeydale, Sheffield, and brought up in the working-class area of Tinsley. The family later moved to the village of Catcliffe after his father set up a (then-illegal) betting shop. This brought greater prosperity but also misery; one day Banks's disabled brother was mugged for the shop's daily takings, and died of his injuries some weeks later. Banks left school in December 1952, aged 15, and took up employment as a bagger with a local coal merchant, which helped to build up his upper body strength. He spent a season playing for amateur side Millspaugh after their regular goalkeeper failed to turn up for a match; the club's trainer spotted Banks amongst the spectators and invited him to play in goal as he was aware that Banks had previously played for Sheffield Schoolboys. His performances there earned him a game in the Yorkshire League for Rawmarsh Welfare, however a 12–2 defeat to Stocksbridge Works on his debut was followed by a 3–1 home defeat, and he was dropped by Rawmarsh and returned to Millspaugh. Still aged 15, he then switched jobs to become a hod carrier.