Carlisle has held city status since the Middle Ages and has been a borough constituency or parliamentary borough for centuries, at one time returning two MPs. In 1835 it became a municipal borough which was later promoted to county borough status. The city's boundaries have changed at various times since 1835 the final time being in 1974 when under the Local Government Act 1972 the city and county borough merged with the Border Rural District to become the new enlarged City of Carlisle, a non-metropolitan district of Cumbria.

The borough originally had several civil parishes or parts of parishes within it but these were all merged into a single civil parish of Carlisle in 1904. The present day urban area is now classed as an unparished area except for the fringes which are in Stanwix Rural, Kingmoor and St Cuthbert Without parishes.

Carlisle unsuccessfully applied to become a Lord Mayoralty in 2002. Carlisle City Council is based in the Civic Centre in Rickergate. Cumbria County Council is in the Lonsdale Buildings at the Courts.