In the wild the golden shiner is usually between 3 to 5 inches long. The body is laterally compressed (deep-bodied).

The back is dark green or olive, and the belly is a silvery white. The sides are silver in smaller individuals, but golden in larger ones. There can be a faint dusky stripe along the sides.  Golden shiners are themselves food for all manner of game fish such as trout and bass, hence their popularity as bait fish.