BACKGROUND Neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio (NLR) has been shown to be a prognostic indicator in several types of cancer. We aimed to investigate the association between NLR and survival in surgery-treated non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients. STUDY DESIGN This large retrospective study included 1,245 patients who underwent initial surgery for stage I-III NSCLC at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center between December 2002 and November 2010. We analyzed the relationship of NLR with clinicopathological variables, local recurrence-free survival (LRFS), distant recurrence-free survival (DRFS), recurrence-free survival (RFS), overall survival (OS), and disease-specific survival (DSS) in patients with high or low NLR using Kaplan-Meier method. Hazard ratios (HRs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were used to assess the prognostic strength of NLR. RESULTS There was a statistically significant association between the pretreatment NLR and histology type (P = 0.003) and tumor grade (P = 0.028). At a median follow-up time of 50.6 months, high NLR was associated with reduced DRFS (P = 0.011), OS (P < 0.0001) and DSS (P = 0.004); it was not associated with LRFS and RFS. Multivariable Cox analysis further revealed that NLR (P = 0.027), pathologic stage (P < 0.0001) and lymphovascular invasion (P < 0.0001) were strong independent predictors for DRFS. NLR was also an independent marker predicting poor OS (P = 0.002) and DSS (P = 0.017). CONCLUSION The pretreatment NLR can serve as a biomarker to predict distant recurrence and death in stage I-III NSCLC patients. Combination of NLR and pathologic stage can better predict the OS and DSS in stage I-II NSCLC patients.