The northern goshawk is a large hawk, almost reaching buzzard size. When up close it has a fierce expression with bright red eyes and a distinctive white eyebrow. Its broad wings enable it to hunt at high speed, weaving in and out of trees, and its long legs and talons can catch its prey in flight. The female is substantially larger than the male. In late winter and spring it has a 'sky-dance' display. Goshawks are a Schedule 1 species. They are still persecuted and their nests are frequently robbed.
The northern goshawk has relatively short, broad wings and a long tail, typical for Accipiter species and common to raptors that require manoeuvrability within forest habitats. For an Accipiter, it has a relatively sizeable bill, relatively long wings, a relatively short tail, robust and fairly short legs and particularly thick toes. Across most of the species' range, it is blue-grey above or brownish-grey with dark barring or streaking over a grey or white base color below, but Asian subspecies in particular range from nearly white overall to nearly black above. Goshawks tend to show clinal variation in colour, with most goshawks further north being paler and those in warmer areas being darker but individuals can be either dark in the north or pale in the south. Individuals that live a long life may gradually become paler as they age, manifesting in mottling and a lightening of the back from a darker shade to a bluer pale color.