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Vadsø was established as a municipality on 1 January 1838 (see formannskapsdistrikt). The law required that all cities should be separated from their rural districts, but because of a low population and very few voters, this was impossible to carry out for the municipality of Vadsø in 1838. (See also Hammerfest and Vardø.)
The rural districts of Vadsø were separated from the city in three stages: Nesseby (in 1846), Sør-Varanger (in 1858), and Nord-Varanger (in 1894). The last one was, however, merged back into the city on 1 January 1964.