Palvin was born in Budapest, Hungary. At an early age, Palvin took up soccer and singing, considering them her favorite hobbies.
Palvin was discovered on the streets of Budapest in 2006 at the age of 13. She shot her first editorial that year for Spur Magazine. Palvin subsequently moved to Asia where she continued a steady stream of bookings. Since then, Palvin has been seen on the cover of L'Officiel, Vogue Russia, Glamour Hungary and Jalouse Magazine.
Her runway debut was as an exclusive for Prada during Milan Fashion Week in February 2010. Palvin has also walked for Louis Vuitton, Miu Miu, Nina Ricci, Emanuel Ungaro, Christopher Kane, Julien MacDonald, Jeremy Scott, Vivienne Westwood, Etro, and opened a show for Chanel.
Palvin is ranked in the top 50 on the Top 50 Models Women list by models.com. Palvin is often compared to Russian model Natalia Vodianova; British Vogue editor Miranda Almond said, “We chose Barbara because she is absolutely exquisite looking a cross between a young Brooke Shields and Natalia Vodianova." Palvin credits Vodianova and Kate Moss as her favorite models.