This study examines the ability of the Advanced Research WRF (ARW) regional model to simulate Indian summer monsoon (ISM) rainfall climatology in different climate zones during the monsoon onset phase in the decade 2000–2009. The initial and boundary conditions for ARW are provided from the NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis Project (NNRP) global reanalysis. Seasonal onset-phase rainfall is compared with corresponding values from 0.25° IMD (India Meteorological Department) rainfall and NNRP precipitation data over seven climate zones (perhumid, humid, dry/moist, subhumid, dry/moist, semiarid and arid) of India to see whether dynamical downscaling using a regional model yields advantages over just using large-scale model predictions. Results show that the model could simulate the onset phase in terms of progression and distribution of rainfall in most zones (except over the northeast) with good correlations and low error metrics. The observed mean onset dates and their variability over different zones are well reproduced by the regional model over most climate zones. It has been found that the ARW performed similarly to the reanalysis in most zones and improves the onset time by 1 to 3 days in zones 4 and 7, in which the NNRP shows a delayed onset compared to the actual IMD onset times. The variations in the onset-phase rainfall during the below-normal onset (June negative) and above-normal onset (June positive) phases are well simulated. The slight underestimation of onset-phase rainfall in the northeast zone could be due to failure in resolving the wide extent of topographic variations and the associated multiscale interactions in that zone. Spatial comparisons showed improvement of pentad rainfall in both space and quantity in ARW simulations over NNRP data, as evident from a wider eastward distribution of pentad rainfall over the Western Ghats, central and eastern India, as in IMD observations. While NNRP under-represented the high pentad rainfall over northeast, east and west coast areas, the ARW captured these regional features showing improvement upon NNRP reanalysis, which may be due to the high resolution (30 km) employed. The onset-phase rainfall characteristics during the contrasting ISM of 2003 and 2009 are well simulated in terms of the variations in the strength of low-level jet (LLJ) and outgoing long-wave radiation (OLR).