Studies describing atypical antipsychotics when compared with conventional antipsychotic drugs are few in France. This study aimed to describe the frequency and characteristics of atypical antipsychotic prescribing. A cross-sectional national survey was conducted from February to June 2003 in a random sample of 100 volunteer French psychiatrists practicing in public psychiatric medical centers. Each psychiatrist was asked to complete a questionnaire for patients to whom at least one antipsychotic was prescribed during the period of the survey. The characteristics of the patients treated with atypical antipsychotics were identified with a logistic regression model. A total of 1733 patients were included in the study. The main diagnoses were schizophrenia (46.1%) and other psychoses (40.8%), followed by mood disorders (10%) and other psychiatric disorders (2.5%). Among these patients, 56% had at least one prescription of an atypical antipsychotic, 42.1% at least one conventional antipsychotic with immediate action and 29.9% at least one conventional antipsychotic with delayed action. Seventy percent of patients were treated with single-drug atypical antipsychotics. Compared with conventional antipsychotics with immediate action, atypical antipsychotics were less likely to be prescribed to patients over 35 years of age [odds ratio (OR) 0.4; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.3-0.6], with duration of illness >10 years (OR 0.5; 95% CI 0.3-0.7), and were less likely to be used with concomitant corrector agents for neurological side effects (OR 0.4; 95% CI 0.3-0.6). This study shows the important use of atypical antipsychotic drugs especially in schizophrenic patients and younger patients.