Born in Manila, he dropped out of college to pursue acting; this so displeased his family that he adopted another surname, Estrada. As an actor he acquired the nickname Erap from pare or 'pal'. He often played heroes of the downtrodden classes. He was the mayor of San Juan municipality in Metro Manila between 1969 and 1986, and became a senator in 1987.
In the 1992 presidential election he was the vice-presidential candidate under Eduardo Cojuangco of the National People's Coalition. Although Fidel Ramos defeated Cojuangco, Estrada won the vice-presidency and began six years of uneasy cohabitation.
He easily won the 1998 election and was inaugurated on June 30, 1998, with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as his vice-president. However his presidency was soon dogged by scandals of bribery and corruption, and he was said to spend long hours drinking with disreputable characters. In October 2000 an acknowledged gambling racketeer Chavit Singson, the then governor of Ilocos Sur, alleged that he had personally given President Estrada the sum of 400 million pesos. This led to increasing pressure for the resignation of Estrada, and on January 20, 2001 he was removed from office by the Supreme Court, following an aborted impeachment trial and several days of mass demonstrations. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo succeeded him as president.