Foster is the third son of Sir Augustus John Foster, 1st Baronet and his wife, Albinia Jane, daughter of George Vere Hobart, and granddaughter of George Hobart, 3rd Earl of Buckinghamshire. He is educated at Eton College, and matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, on May 30, 1838.
Leaving Oxford without a degree, Foster joins the diplomatic service. From 1842 to 1843 he is attached to the diplomatic mission of Sir Henry Ellis in Rio de Janeiro, and from 1845 to 1847 to that of Sir William Gore Ouseley in Montevideo.
In 1847 Foster visits a family estate in County Louth, Ireland at the time of the Great Famine, with his eldest brother, Sir Frederick George Foster. They become involved in famine relief. In 1848 their father dies and Foster undergoes a crisis in his life, and he comes to concentrate on philanthropy in Ireland.
Foster makes three voyages to the United States as a steerage passenger in a ship of emigrants, finding the accommodations bad, and the treatment of emigrants exploitative. Through his cousin Vere Hobart, Lord Hobart, he is able to influence parliament and the Passengers Act 1851. He also takes practical steps to promote Irish emigration to the United States.
Later, Foster takes up the improvement of education in Ireland. This is a time of Catholic suspicion of the national education system introduced by Richard Whately. Foster contributes to the provision of better school accommodation and apparatus, and gives grants in aid of building several hundred new school-houses. He agitates for improved wages and conditions for teachers, and develops the “Vere Foster copy-books” to improve and standardise the teaching of writing. The immense popularity of these texts draw him to the Belfast printing firm Marcus Ward & Company, and into personal friendship with John Ward, one of the firm’s owners.
In 1867, Foster settles permanently in Belfast where he continues to work as the president of the Congress of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation. He fundraises for the Royal Belfast Hospital, and helps to establish a school of art in the town, while continuing to promote emigration.
In 1879, with the Land War in Ireland, Foster concentrates on promoting female emigration to the United States and the British colonies. He is supported in his projects by both Catholic and Protestant clergy.
Vere Foster dies, unmarried, in Belfast on December 21, 1900. He is buried in Belfast City Cemetery.