The film begins in 1969, with FBI agent Carl Hanratty Jr. arriving at a French prison to meet the sick Frank Abagnale Jr, who attempts to escape from the prison. The scene flashes back to six years earlier. Frank's father cons a woman into lending him a suit for Frank Jr., who later acts as a driver for Frank Sr. in a ruse to get a loan from Chase Manhattan Bank. When the loan is denied (due to a series of IRS tax frauds by Frank Sr.), the family is forced to move from their grand home to a small apartment, with tension building within the family.

Frank soon realizes that his mother is having an adulterous affair with his father's friend and feeling that he will not fit in at his new school, poses as a substitute teacher in his French class for a short time. Eventually trouble builds between Franks mother and father, who file for divorce and ask Frank to choose who he will live with. Horrified, Frank runs away from home, using checks that his father had given him. When Frank runs out of money, he begins to use confidence scams. Franks cons grow ever bolder and he even impersonates an airline pilot. He forges Pan Am payroll checks and succeeds in stealing over 2.8 million dollars. "Airline pilot" Frank Abagnale Jr. "Airline pilot" Frank Abagnale Jr.

Meanwhile Carl Hanratty, the nearly humorless FBI agent, begins to track down Frank in spite of his superiors not attaching much importance to the case (as most of them do not take bank fraud seriously). Tracking Frank to a hotel, Carl discovers to his surprise that he is still resident and breaks into his room to arrest him. Emerging from the bathroom and knowing only that Carl is from the FBI, Frank pretends to be Agent Barry Allen of the United States Secret Service and brazenly claims to have just caught the suspect himself. It is not until after Frank has escaped that Carl realizes he has been fooled.

Later, on Christmas Eve, while Carl is working in the office late and alone, Frank calls him to apologize for tricking him back at the hotel. Carl announces that it doesn't work that way and, to Frank's horror, Carl realizes the reason for the call: Frank has no one else to talk to. Frank hangs up, and Carl continues to investigate. He later discovers that the name Barry Allen is from The Flash comic books and that Frank is actually a teenage minor.

Frank, meanwhile, has not only changed to impersonating a doctor (complete with a forged Harvard Medical School degree) in Georgia, but is romancing Brenda Strong (Amy Adams), a Southern belle who works as a hospital nurse. He proposes marriage to her, at least partly to try to engineer a reconciliation with her parents who have disowned her since she had an abortion. The two travel to meet her parents in Louisiana. Announcing to them not only that he is like them a Lutheran but that he is a qualified laywer as well as a doctor. Frank soon joins Brenda's father (Martin Sheen) as an assistant prosecutor after passing the Bar exam.

When Hanratty tracks him down and arrives at their engagement party to arrest him, Frank admits the truth to Brenda, shows her all his stolen money and asks her to run away with him. Although shocked, she accepts his offer and agrees to meet him two days later at the airport. However, when she arrives as planned, he sees a devastated Brenda being coached by FBI agents, who have surrounded the airport. Realizing that Carl has convinced her to turn against him, Frank escapes on a flight to Europe after fraudulently recruiting a bevvy of trainee air hostesses from a local high school.

Seven months later, Carl angrily tells his boss that Frank has been forging checks all over the Eastern Hemisphere. Arguing that Frank is out of control, he requests permission to track him down in Europe. When his boss denies him permission, Carl takes one of Franks bogus checks to professional printers who suggest it can have been printed in only a handful of European countries. Remembering from an interview with Franks mother Paula that she was born in France, Carl travels to her birthplace of Montrichard and he finds Frank there, on Christmas Eve, inside a massive printing factory. Carl tells Frank that the French police outside will kill him if he doesnt surrender quietly. Frank assumes he is joking at first, but Carl vows that he is not lying. Frank handcuffs himself and Carl takes him outside, where, seeing no police, he compliments Carl on his ability to fool him. Almost immediately, however, the French police arrive and escort Frank to prison.

Later, on the plane extraditing Frank to the United States, Carl informs him that his father has died accidentally. Devastated, Frank escapes from the plane in incredible fashion just as it touches down and returns to his old home. Here he finds his mother with her second husband, as well as a young girl who Frank realizes is his half-sister. Before he can even speak to his mother, however, the posse of police arrive in pursuit and Frank surrenders.

Frank is tried, convicted and given a long prison sentence, but whilst in prison receives regular visits from Carl. During one of these visits, Frank easily deduces the identity of a forger by glancing at a check that Carl shows him. Impressed, Carl then arranges for Frank to be allowed to serve out the remainder of his sentence working for the check fraud department of the FBI under Carl's custody. Although Frank is out of prison, he is chained to his desk-job he misses the thrill of his old life and even attempts to pose as an airline pilot once again. Just as he tries to run again, he meets Carl at the airport. Carl allows him to go free, predicting that Frank will return to work on Monday since there is no one chasing him.

Back in the office on Monday morning, Carl is nervous when Frank doesn't appear for work on time. He is afraid that he has run away and ruined both their lives. But Frank soon shows up and asks Carl about their next case. Bristling, Carl demands to know how Frank cheated on the Bar Exam in Louisiana, to which Frank replies that he didnt he had studied for only two weeks and genuinely passed the exam. Astounded, Carl asks him "Is that the truth, Frank?" to which Frank merely smiles. Carl smiles back and the two continue to their investigation work together.

Lastly, it is revealed through scrolling text that "Frank has been happily married for 26 years" had three sons, lives in the Midwest with his family, is still good friends with Carl, caught some of the world's most elusive money forgers and gets millions of dollars each year because of his work creating unforgeable checks.

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