India’s urbanising middle class is at the brink of an unprecedented increase in residential cooling demand, yet little is understood about the dynamics of changing cooling consumption. Based on empirical analyses, this research examines a set of fundamental questions around India’s cooling transition. How is cooling conceptualised and what cooling strategies do households use? How, when and why are people purchasing and using their air conditioners (ACs)? Who is buying energy-efficient ACs? Is cooling consumption gendered? Using descriptive statistics, machine learning, and regression analysis to characterize AC usage, we examine a sample dataset (n = 2092) that is representative of areas in Delhi with above average AC penetration. We unpack perceptions of thermal comfort, and characterize the conditions under which households have greater AC use and make energy efficient purchase choices. AC usage is found to be a function of household habits (such as exposure to ACs in the workplace or schools), structural factors, and socio demographic features. While most ACs are in the middle energy-efficiency range, preferences, behaviours and awareness around energy efficiency are found to affect AC use as well as influence the purchase of more efficient ACs. Notable gender differences are observed, and women are found to be less involved in decision-making around cooling appliances and less aware of the technical know-how or energy-efficient schemes. Policy recommendations for a low-carbon cooling trajectory are discussed.