Transient distortion of thin plate in the welding process usually has a complicated mode and large magnitude. Quantitative measurement and prediction of full-field distortion are challenging and rarely reported up to now. In this study, the out-of-plane distortion of a thin plate during the Tungsten Inert Gas (TIG) welding process was measured using the digital image correlation (DIC) method. A simulation model based on thermal elastic–plastic finite element method (FEM) and DIC measured geometric imperfection were developed for accurate prediction of the transient welding distortion. The numerical results and experimental data agreed very well in both out-of-plane deformation modes and magnitudes of the plate at different stages of welding. The maximum out-of-plane distortion was larger than 4 mm during welding which can cause instability of arc length and heat input. The distance change between welding torch and plate surface was investigated under different initial deflections of the plate before welding. The plate with flat geometry shows the minimum transient and final gap change. In addition, the relationship between heat input and welding distortion was clarified through a series of numerical analyses. Optimization of welding heat input can be performed based on numerical results to avoid excessive welding distortion.