The initial growth mechanism of epitaxial BaTiO3 films is studied by combined application of atomic force microscopy, cross sectional high-resolution transmission electron microscopy, and x-ray diffraction. Epitaxial BaTiO3 thin films were grown by pulsed laser deposition on vicinal Nb-doped SrTiO3 (SrTiO3:Nb) (001) substrates with well-defined terraces. X-ray diffraction and cross sectional high-resolution transmission electron microscopy investigations revealed well-defined epitaxial films and a sharp interface between BaTiO3 films and SrTiO3:Nb substrates. The layer-then-island (Stranski–Krastanov mode) growth mechanism observed by analyzing the morphology of a sequence of films with increasing amount of deposited material has been confirmed by microstructure investigations. © 2002 American Institute of Physics.