The white-crowned sparrow is a large sparrow with a bold black-and-white striped crown, a clear gray breast and a pink beak.
Adult upperparts are reddish brown with dark streaks, with whitish wing bars. The head is gray with a striking black-and-white striped crown with two black crown stripes, and a black eye line. The bill is light yellow to pink, with a dusky tip, and with no yellow spot next to the bill. Underparts are clear gray with a whitish throat.
Immatures have gray and rusty crown stripes, the crown often appearing a solid reddish brown. Immatures lack the prominent eye ring of the field sparrow, and lack the central breast spot of the American tree sparrow.
Adults and immatures have a short crest that gives the rear of the crown a square look (not rounded as in the white-throated sparrow).
The song is variable and usually consists of whistles and trills. The call is a "tseet" or a sharp, alarmed "pink" or "chink."