In prokaryotes and eukaryotes, most genes appear to be transcribed during short periods called transcriptional bursts, interspersed by silent intervals. We describe how such bursts generate gene-specific temporal patterns of messenger RNA (mRNA) synthesis in mammalian cells. To monitor transcription at high temporal resolution, we established various gene trap cell lines and transgenic cell lines expressing a short-lived luciferase protein from an unstable mRNA, and recorded bioluminescence in real time in single cells. Mathematical modeling identified gene-specific on- and off-switching rates in transcriptional activity and mean numbers of mRNAs produced during the bursts. Transcriptional kinetics were markedly altered by cis-regulatory DNA elements. Our analysis demonstrated that bursting kinetics are highly gene-specific, reflecting refractory periods during which genes stay inactive for a certain time before switching on again.