The silver birch typically reaches 15 to 25 m, with a slender trunk usually under 40 cm (16 in) diameter. The bark on the trunk and branches is golden-brown at first, but later this turns to white as a result of papery tissue developing on the surface and peeling off in flakes, in a similar manner to the closely related paper birch (B. papyrifera). The bark remains smooth until the tree gets quite large, but in older trees, the bark thickens, becoming irregular, dark, and rugged. Young branches have whitish resin warts and the twigs are slender, hairless, and often pendulous. The buds are small and sticky, and development is sympodial - the terminal bud dies away and growth continues from a lateral bud. The species is monoecious with male and female catkins found on the same tree. Some shoots are long and bear the male catkins at the tip, while others are short and bear female catkins. The immature male catkins are present during the winter, but the female catkins develop in the spring, soon after the leaves unfurl.
The leaves have short, slender stalks and are 3 to 7 cm (1.2 to 2.8 in) long, triangular with broad, untoothed, wedge-shaped bases, slender pointed tips, and coarsely double-toothed, serrated margins. They are sticky with resin at first, but this dries as they age, leaving small, white scales. The foliage is a pale to medium green and turns yellow early in the autumn before the leaves fall. In midsummer, the female catkins mature and the male catkins expand and release pollen, and wind pollination takes place. The small, 1- to 2-mm winged seeds ripen in late summer on pendulous, cylindrical catkins 2 to 4 cm (0.8 to 1.6 in) long and 7 mm (0.3 in) broad. The seeds are very numerous and are separated by scales, and when ripe, the whole catkin disintegrates and the seeds are spread widely by the wind