Each master device must monitor the bus for Start and Stop bits. If the device detects that the bus is busy, it cannot begin a new message until the bus returns to an Idle state.

However, two master devices may try to initiate a transmission on or about the same time. When this occurs, the process of arbitration begins. Each transmitter checks the level of the SDA data line and compares it to the level that it expects to find. The first transmitter to observe that the two levels do not match, loses arbitration, and must stop transmitting on the SDA line.

For example, if one transmitter holds the SDA line to a logical one (lets it float) and a second transmitter holds it to a logical zero (pulls it low), the result is that the SDA line will be low. The first transmitter then observes that the level of the line is different than expected and concludes that another transmitter is communicating.

The first transmitter to notice this difference is the one that loses arbitration and must stop driving the SDA line. If this transmitter is also a master device, it also must stop driving the SCL line. It then can monitor the lines for a Stop condition before trying to reissue its transmission. In the meantime, the other device that has not noticed any difference between the expected and actual levels on the SDA line continues with its original transmission. It can do so without any complications, because so far, the transmission appears exactly as expected with no other transmitter disturbing the message.

Slave Transmit mode can also be arbitrated, when a master addresses multiple slaves, but this is less common.

If two master devices are sending a message to two different slave devices at the address stage, the master sending the lower slave address always wins arbitration. When two master devices send messages to the same slave address, and addresses can sometimes refer to multiple slaves, the arbitration process must continue into the data stage.

Arbitration usually occurs very rarely, but it is a necessary process for proper multi-master support.