Oral leukoplakia is a heterogeneous lesion with risk of cancer development; there are no biomarkers to predict its potential of malignant transformation. Tissue proteomic analysis of oral leukoplakia using iTRAQ labeling liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry showed overexpression of heterogeneous ribonucleoprotein K (hnRNP K), a transformation-related RNA-binding protein, in leukoplakia in comparison with normal tissue. Herein, we investigated the clinical significance of hnRNP K in identification of oral leukoplakic lesions in early stages and as a prognostic marker in head-and-neck/oral squamous cell carcinomas (HNOSCCs). Immunohistochemical analysis of hnRNP K was performed in 100 HNOSCCs, 199 leukoplakias and 55 nonmalignant tissues and correlated with clinicopathologic parameters and disease prognosis over 6 years for HNOSCCs. hnRNP K nuclear expression increased from normal tissues to leukoplakia, and frank malignancy (p < 0.001). Cytoplasmic hnRNP K increased significantly from leukoplakia to HNOSCCs (p < 0.001) and was associated with poor prognosis of HNOSCCs (p = 0.011) by Kaplan-Meier analysis. The most important finding of our follow-up study is that cytoplasmic hnRNP K is an independent predictor of disease recurrence in HNOSCC patients. In conclusion, nuclear hnRNP K may serve as a potential marker for early diagnosis, whereas its cytoplasmic accumulation can help to identify a subgroup of HNOSCC patients with poor prognosis, suggesting its putative utility in clinical management of HNOSCC.