Like many of the neighboring islands, it is volcanic in origin and mountainous. The highest point on the island is Majohnny Hill at 321 m.
Despite rumours that the island's name comes from that of a 17th-century Dutch privateer, Joost van Dyk, who used its harbours as a hideout, there is no factual evidence supporting this claim. Just who Jost Van Dyke's namesake is remains a mystery. John C. Lettsome (of Little Jost Van Dyke), founder of the Medical Society of London is Jost Van Dyke's most noteworthy resident.
Although the English captured the BVI in 1672, it seems that Jost Van Dyke was mostly ignored until the mid-18th century. A map drawn of the BVI in 1717 by Captain John Walton does not depict either Jost Van Dyke or Little Jost Van Dyke.
The remains of a sugar works on the ridge above Great Harbour provide archaeological evidence that some sugar cane was under cultivation and processed, though probably not in any great quantity.
In 1815, 140 acres (0.57 km2) were under cotton cultivation, producing 21,000 pounds annually. There was a population of 428 (25 whites, 32 free persons of colour and 371 slaves). By 1825, cotton production decreased to 17,000 pounds, while the population increased to 506 (34 whites, 76 free persons of colour and 397 slaves).
Similar to other islands in the region, JVD and the BVI saw gradual and irreversible economic decline throughout the 18th century. Curiously though, the population of Jost Van Dyke continued to increase (probably due to the freedom of travel enjoyed by the former slave population after Emancipation in the BVI in 1838). Thereafter, many BVI islanders regularly sought work at the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company's coaling wharves in St. Thomas, (today- United States Virgin Islands). By 1853, Dookhan (1975) attributes a population of 1,235 residents on Jost Van Dyke, 196 of whom died of a cholera outbreak in that same year.
From the Emancipation Era forward, the community of Jost Van Dyke subsisted mainly on small scale fishing and subsistence agriculture. Charcoal-making was a practice that began during the plantation era, when strong fires were vital for sugar and rum production, and charcoal making emerged as a primary industry for the BVI during the Post-Emancipation years. Between the 1920s and 1960s, an estimated 20,000 tons of charcoal were exported from the BVI to the US Virgin Islands. (1998. Penn-Moll, Verna, Coals of Fire: The Development of the Caribbean Fireplace Technology with Traditional Customs, Myths and Sayings.)
According to island residents, on JVD, people would work collectively to build charcoal pits, a practice that occasionally continues to this day. The pits were often a social gathering place, women might use the heat of the fire to bake bread or roast breadfruit while the men might play dominoes around the pit.
Maritime resources were also extremely important historically to the people of Jost Van Dyke, and the island has emerged as a fishing village. The desire for trade and social interaction with nearby islands stimulated the development of seafaring skills. Sailing, fishing, rowing and boat construction flourished. Small, locally constructed sailing vessels the "Tortola Boat" flourished in the BVI until about the 1960s when they were replaced with motorized craft.
Jost Van Dyke, like the rest of the British Virgin Islands, suffered catastrophic damage from Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm which struck the territory in September 2017. The island's hillsides were stripped of vegetation. Jost Van Dyke's primary school, health clinic, and two gas stations were damaged, while most of the island's homes were destroyed.
With little aid from the British or territorial governments during the week following the storm, Jost Van Dyke's 298 residents set up a recovery and command center Foxy’s Tamarind Bar and Restaurant. Food from other restaurants and residences were brought to Foxy's, which housed the island's only major, surviving refrigerator and generators before others were repaired by the Royal Marines later that month. Residents used a salvaged chainsaw to clear roads and connect remote parts of the islands.
As at the 2010 Census, the population of Jost Van Dyke was 298. The population has grown strongly in recent decades, in line with the population of the Virgin Islands. Its recorded population in 1991 was 140. The island has a young population with nearly one-half (46%) of residents under the age of 35 and almost 70% under the age of 50.
Jost Van Dyke receives numerous visitors. The island is accessible by private boats and ferry service from Tortola, Saint Thomas, and Saint John.
The most frequent destination is Great Harbour (or Belle Vue). The beach strip around the harbour is lined with small bars and restaurants. Since the late 1960s, Foxy's Bar in Great Harbour has been a popular stop for Caribbean boaters. Foxy's and the other bars in Great Harbour now host a modest crowd year-round and are filled with thousands of partiers on New Year's Eve (locally known as "Old Year’s Night").
Great Harbour is one of the busiest ports in the BVI: in 2008, nearly 7,000 boats cleared through the island's port. Today, tourism, and particularly yachting tourism is the mainstay of the economy.
Located in nearby White Bay is the Soggy Dollar Bar, another famous beach bar on the island. It is reputedly the birthplace of the popular drink known as the Painkiller. The Soggy Dollar bar is appropriately named because when built there was neither road nor dock. (There is now a road from Belle Vue, but still no dock). To reach the beach where the bar is located, it is a common practice for boaters to anchor off the beach, swim to shore, and pay for their drinks with wet money. Today, White Bay is lined with beach bars and is a very popular stop for yachts and boaters from Tortola, St. Thomas, and St. John. Group tours from the USVI and even small cruise ships are also frequent visitors.
On the east side of Jost Van Dyke, Foxy's Taboo is a locally famous lunch restaurant, bar, and gift shop. A dock is available for day boaters. Nearby, a natural rock formation called the bubbly pool is popular attraction. It gets its name from the bubbles that form in the water when waves crash against the rocks.
The country music video for Kenny Chesney's 2002 recording "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems" was filmed on and around Jost Van Dyke. Included in the video were several scenes at One Love Bar and Ivan's Stress-Free Bar where it is common for patrons to mix their own drinks and leave their payment in the register. Chesney also references Jost Van Dyke in his song "Somewhere in The Sun" from his album Be as You Are (Songs from an Old Blue Chair).
The British Virgin Islands operates several government schools.
Jost Van Dyke residents are served by Jost Van Dyke Primary School which offers both primary and secondary education. As of 2011, after students graduate from primary school they attend secondary (high school) for two years on Jost Van Dyke. After completing two years of high school on Jost Van Dyke, students travel daily from Monday to Friday to the main island of Tortola to attend the Elmore Stoutt High School. Students must catch the 7:00 am ferry (NEW HORIZON FERRY SERVICE) and return to Jost Van Dyke on the 4:00 pm ferry.