We conducted a retrospective study in patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) who underwent curative lung resection to seek for better lung function parameters associated with long-term survival after lung resection. From January 2006 to December 2008, 470 patients who underwent lung resection with a postoperative diagnosis of NSCLC were studied. Median survival time was 60 months. Patients with pulmonary function values <80 % of predicted were defined as lung function impairment. Patients with impaired vital capacity, maximal voluntary ventilation, forced vital capacity (FVC), forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) or diffusion capacity for carbon monoxide (DLCO) had significant shorter overall survival time (P = 0.024; P = 0.026; P < 0.001; P = 0.027; P = 0.007). In univariate analysis, VC, FVC, FEV1 and DLCO were found to have significant effect on overall survival. In multivariate analysis, FVC (HR, 2.029; 95 % CI 1.126-3.659; P = 0.019) was found to be an independent prognostic predictor of long-term overall survival. For cancer-specific survival, FVC (HR 2.404; 95 % CI 1.300-4.445; P = 0.005) was also found to be an independent prognostic predictor in multivariable analysis. Preoperative FVC, rather than FEV1 or DLCO, is an independent prognostic predictor for long-term survival. FVC is not only an indicator of lung function but also of great value for surgeons to predict survival after lung resection.