Upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) account for substantial attendances at emergency departments (EDs). There is a need to elucidate determinants of antibiotic prescribing in time-strapped EDs – popular choices for primary care despite highly accessible primary care clinics. Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with purposively sampled physicians (n = 9) in an adult ED in Singapore. All interviews were analysed using thematic analysis and further interpreted using the Social Ecological Model to explain prescribing determinants. Themes included: (1) reliance on clinical knowledge and judgement, (2) patient-related factors, (3) patient–physician relationship factors, (4) perceived practice norms, (5) policies and treatment guidelines and (6) patient education and awareness. The physicians relied strongly on their clinical knowledge and judgement in managing URTI cases and seldom interfered with their peers’ clinical decisions. Despite departmental norms of not prescribing antibiotics for URTIs, physicians would prescribe antibiotics when faced with uncertainty in patients’ diagnoses, treating immunocompromised or older patients with comorbidities, and for patients demanding antibiotics, especially under time constraints. Participants had a preference for antibiotic prescribing guidelines based on local epidemiology, but viewed hospital policies on prescribing as a hindrance to clinical judgement. Participants highlighted the need for more public education and awareness on the appropriate use of antibiotics and management of URTIs. Organisational practice norms strongly influenced antibiotic prescribing decisions by physicians, who can be swayed by time pressures and patient demands. Clinical decision support tools, hospital guidelines and patient education targeting at individual, interpersonal and community levels could reduce unnecessary antibiotic use.