BACKGROUND: Atrial fibrillation (AF) is commonly managed by a variety of specialists. Current guidelines differ in their recommendations leading to uncertainty regarding important clinical decisions. We sought to document practice pattern variation among cardiologists, emergency physicians (EP) and hospitalists at a single academic, tertiary-care center. METHODS: A survey was created containing seven clinical scenarios of patients presenting with AF. We analyzed respondent choices regarding rate vs rhythm control, thromboembolic treatment and hospitalization strategies. Finally, we contrasted our findings with a comparable Australasian survey to provide an international reference. RESULTS: There was a 78% response rate (124 of 158), 37% hospitalists, 31.5% cardiologists, and 31.5% EP. Most respondents chose rate over rhythm control (92.2%; 95% CI, 89.1% – 94.5%) and thromboembolic treatment (67.8%; 95% CI, 63.8% – 71.7%). Compared to both hospitalists and EPs, cardiologists were more likely to choose thromboembolic treatment for new and paroxysmal AF (adjusted OR 2.38; 95% CI, 1.05 – 5.41). They were less likely to favor hospital admission across all types of AF (adjusted OR 0.36; 95% CI, 0.17 – 0.79) but thought cardiology consultation was more important (adjusted OR 1.88, 95% CI, 0.97 – 3.64). Australasian physicians were more aggressive with rhythm control for paroxysmal AF with low CHADS2 score compared to US physicians. CONCLUSIONS: Significant variation exists among specialties in the management of acute AF, likely reflecting a lack of high quality research to direct the provider. Future studies may help to standardize practice leading to decreased rates of hospitalization and overall cost. ELECTRONIC SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIAL: The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12872-015-0009-1) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.