John first began acting in high school, around the same time he began surfing. Choosing acting over wrestling, John joined a drama team that went on to win awards throughout his high school career. Upon leaving high school, John went to UC Santa Barbara and surfed on their surf team. When he transferred to USC he thought his surfing days were over and that acting would have to be his primary passion, since he was going to be living in a big city. John went on a trip in 1980 to Bali where he surfed for a month in what he refers to as 'paradise'.
John went on to appear in films such as Stephen King's, Children of the Corn and Grandview, U.S.A.. That same year, he also appeared in an episode of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories alongside actor Kevin Costner. It was later on that he once again took up surfing when he landed the role of Turtle in the film, North Shore, which gave him the chance to act and surf with some of his childhood heroes.
While filming North Shore, Gerry Lopez told John that he could surf and act. This inspired John to keep surfing and acting after the film ended and later landed him the role of Nathanial in the film Point Break, opposite Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey.
John has also been in the films Tombstone opposite Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, Return of the Living Dead, and Dillinger as well as others and has guest-starred on various television series, including Law & Order.
Philbin trained Kate Bosworth to surf for the film Blue Crush.
John Philbin currently resides in Pacific Palisades, California, where he teaches surfing and continues to appear in films and on television. John has his own instructional video he has released and has also produced a surfing documentary for Quiksilver titled Chasing The Dream, about the Huntington Beach High surf team and their trip to Australia to try and become the next big thing in surfing. The film is narrated by Gary Busey.