The northern wheatear is larger than the European robin at 14½–16 cm length. Both sexes have a white rump and tail, with a black inverted T-pattern at the end of the tail.
The plumage of the summer male has grey upperparts, buff throat and black wings and face mask. In autumn it resembles the female apart from the black wings. The female is pale brown above and buff below with darker brown wings. The male has a whistling, crackly song. Its call is a typical chat chack noise, and the flight call is the same.