McAlister was born in Pasadena, California, and attended Pasadena High School. As a high school footballquarterback, he threw for 1,153 yards and rushed for 1,302 yards and also returned three punts and two interceptions for touchdowns. He won the conference player of the year and California's Most Valuable Player award in his senior year. McAlister also played basketball and, under Coach Bill Duwe, won the CIF championship in 1995. He also lettered in track. Pasadena High School retired his football jersey No. 9 in 2001.
McAlister attended Mt. San Antonio College before transferring to the University of Arizona and playing for the Arizona Wildcats football team from 1996 to 1998. He had an illustrious career at Arizona where he won unanimous All-America first-team honors and was a first-team All-Pac-10 selection for 3 straight seasons. He is only the 7th player in college football history (1st in Arizona history) to return a kickoff, punt and interception for touchdowns in the same season. His 18 interceptions at the end of his Arizona career ranked 3rd on the school's career-record chart behind Chuck Cecil and Jackie Wallace.
McAlister, at 205 pounds, ran a 4.53 second 40-yard dash, 4.08 second 20-yard shuttle, 6.90 3-cone drill, and had a vertical jump of 38 inches at the 1999 NFL Combine
McAlister had a solid rookie season in which he recorded 47 tackles (45 solo), 5 interceptions, and 16 passes deflected. He made his NFL debut at the St. Louis Rams on September 12, 1999. At season's end, he was named to College & Pro Football Newsweekly's 1999 All-Rookie Team. McAlister had another solid season in 2000 as the Ravens won the Super Bowl and he had a key interception in Super Bowl XXXV against the New York Giants. During the regular season, he also intercepted New York Jets and former Baltimore Ravens QB Vinny Testaverde and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown.
McAlister earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 2003. He had 43 tackles. McAlister also intercepted three passes for 93 yards. That included an 83-yard run for a score.
In 2004, McAlister signed a 7-year, 55 million dollar contract.
McAlister had arguably the best season of his career in 2006. He had two touchdowns that year and made his third Pro Bowl. But his last two seasons in Baltimore were marked by injuries and inconsistent play. In 2008, in 5 starts before being put on Injured Reserve, he did however amass 16 tackles, 3 INTs and 1 fumble recovery, showing some of his old form.
On November 17, 2009, McAlister signed with the New Orleans Saints. In a December 6 game at the Washington Redskins, McAlister forced a fumble in overtime, which started the drive resulting in a game-winning field goal for New Orleans. However, he was released on December 8, just two months before the Saints would go on to win Super Bowl XLIV. McAlister finished 2009 with 4 tackles and the forced fumble. He has not played in the NFL since.
Chris McAlister's father James McAlister also played in the NFL, in three seasons for the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles during the 1970s. In 1996, McAlister was convicted and served a brief sentence for a petty theft charge. McAlister is divorced and has two daughters. McAlister was married for 13 months. By 2011, according to court documents he filed in hopes of getting his child support payments lowered, McAlister was forced to move back in with his parents. He also disclosed that he has not had any income since 2009.