Pipefish look like straight-bodied seahorses with tiny mouths. The name is derived from the peculiar form of their snout, which is like a long tube, ending in a narrow and small mouth which opens upwards and is toothless. The body and tail are long, thin, and snake-like. They have a highly modified skeleton formed into armored plating. This dermal skeleton has several longitudinal ridges, so that a vertical section through the body looks angular, not round or oval as in the majority of other fishes.

A dorsal fin is always present, and is the principal (in some species, the only) organ of locomotion. The ventral fins are constantly absent, and the other fins may or may not be developed. The gill openings are extremely small and placed near the upper posterior angle of the gill cover.