Introduction Although ANC services are increasingly available to women in low and middle-income countries, their inadequate use persists. This suggests a misalignment between aims of the services and maternal beliefs and circumstances. Owing to the dearth of studies examining the timing and adequacy of content of care, this current study aims to investigate the timing and frequency of ANC visits in Ethiopia. Methods Data was obtained from the nationally representative 2011 Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) which used a two-stage cluster sampling design to provide estimates for the health and demographic variables of interest for the country. Our study focused on a sample of 10,896 women with history of at least one childbirth event. Percentages of timing and adequacy of ANC visits were conducted across the levels of selected factors. Variables which were associated at 5% significance level were examined in the multivariable logistic regression model for association between timing and frequency of ANC visits and the explanatory variables while controlling for covariates. Furthermore, we presented the approach to estimate marginal effects involving covariate-adjusted logistic regression with corresponding 95%CI of delayed initiation of ANC visits and inadequate ANC attendance. The method used involved predicted probabilities added up to a weighted average showing the covariate distribution in the population. Results Results indicate that 66.3% of women did not use ANC at first trimester and 22.3% had ANC less than 4 visits. The results of this study were unique in that the association between delayed ANC visits and adequacy of ANC visits were examined using multivariable logistic model and the marginal effects using predicted probabilities. Results revealed that older age interval has higher odds of inadequate ANC visits. More so, type of place of residence was associated with delayed initiation of ANC visits, with rural women having the higher odds of delayed initiation of ANC visits (OR = 1.65; 95%CI: 1.26–2.18). However, rural women had 44% reduction in the odds of having inadequate ANC visits. In addition, multi-parity showed higher odds of delayed initiation of ANC visit when compared to the primigravida (OR = 2.20; 95%CI: 1.07–2.69). On the contrary, there was 36% reduction in the odds of multigravida having inadequate ANC visits when compared to the women who were primigravida. There were higher odds of inadequacy in ANC visits among women who engaged in sales/business, agriculture, skilled manual and other jobs when compared to women who currently do not work, after adjusting for covariates. From the predictive margins, assuming the distribution of all covariates remained the same among respondents, but everyone was aged 15–19 years, we would expect 71.8% delayed initiation of ANC visit. If everyone was aged 20-24years, 73.4%; 25-29years, 66.5%; 30-34years, 64.8%; 35-39years, 65.6%; 40-44years, 59.6% and 45-49years, we would expect 70.1% delayed initiation of ANC visit. If instead the distribution of age was as observed and for other covariates remained the same among respondents, but no respondent lived in the rural, we would expect about 61.4% delayed initiation of ANC visit; if however, everyone lived in the rural, and we would expect 71.6% delayed initiation in ANC visit. Model III revealed the predictive margins of all factors examined for delayed initiation for ANC visits, while Model IV presented the predictive marginal effects of the determinants of adequacy of ANC visits. Conclusion The precise mechanism by which these factors affect ANC visits remain blurred at best. There may be factors on the demand side like the women’s empowerment, financial support of the husband, knowledge of ANC visits in the context of timing, frequency and the expectations of ANC visits might be mediating the effects through the factors found associated in this study. Supply side factors like the quality of ANC services, skilled staff, and geographic location of the health centers also mediate their effects through the highlighted factors. Irrespective of the knowledge about the precise mechanism of action, policy makers could focus on improving women’s empowerment, improving women’s education, reducing wealth inequity and facilitating improved utilization of ANC through modifications on the supply side factors such as geographic location and focus on hard to reach women.