The adult is 16 to 25 inches long with a 38 to 49 inch wingspan. It has a pale face with dark rings around the eyes, a yellow beak and brown eyes. It is the only typical owl of the eastern United States which has brown eyes; all others have yellow eyes. The upper parts are mottled gray-brown. The underparts are light with markings; the chest is barred horizontally while the belly is streaked vertically. The legs and feet are covered in feathers up to the talons. The head is round and lacks ear tufts, a distinction from the slightly smaller short-eared owl, which favors more open, marginal habitats.
Recent studies show suburban neighborhoods can be ideal habitat for barred owls. Breeding habitats are dense woods.