The River Lapwing has a black crest, crown, face and central throat and grey-white neck sides and nape. It has a grey-brown breast band and white underparts with a black belly patch. The back is brown, the rump is white and the tail is black. This is a striking species in flight, with black primaries, white under wings and upper wing secondaries, and brown upper wing coverts.
Adults of both sexes are similarly plumaged, but males are slightly larger than females. Young birds have the brown tips to the black head feathers, a sandier brown back, and pale fringes to the upperpart and wing covert feathers.