Inter-annual variability in the onset of monsoon over Kerala (MOK), India, is investigated using daily temperature; mean sea level pressure; winds at 850, 500 and 200 hPa pressure levels; outgoing longwave radiation (OLR); sea surface temperature (SST) and vertically integrated moisture content anomaly with 32 years (1981–2013) observation. The MOK is classified as early, delayed, or normal by considering the mean monsoon onset date over Kerala to be the 1st of June with a standard deviation of 8 days. The objective of the study is to identify the synoptic setup during MOK and comparison with climatology to estimate the predictability of the onset type (early, normal, or delayed) with 5, 10, and 15 days lead time. The study reveals that an enhanced convection observed over the Bay of Bengal during early MOK is found to shift over the Arabian Sea during delayed MOK. An intense high-pressure zone observed over the western south Indian Ocean during early MOK shifts to the east during delayed MOK. Higher tropospheric temperature (TT) over the western Equatorial Ocean during early MOK and lower TT over the Indian subcontinent intensify the land–ocean thermal contrast that leads to early MOK. The sea surface temperature (SST) over the Arabian Sea is observed to be warmer during delayed than early MOK. During early MOK, the source of 850 hPa southwesterly wind shifts to the west equatorial zone while a COL region has been found during delayed MOK at that level. The study further reveals that the wind speed anomaly at the 200-hPa pressure level coincides inversely with the anomaly of tropospheric temperature. © 2016, Springer-Verlag Wien.