Abstract Background Whether patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) with unexpected pleural dissemination (UPD) could get survival benefit from tumor resection remained controversial. Methods Totally, 169 patients with NSCLC with UPD were included between 2012 and 2016. Patients were divided into the tumor resection and open-close group. Progression-free survival (PFS) and overall survival (OS) were compared with a log-rank test. The multivariable Cox analysis was applied to identify prognostic factors. Results Sixty-five patients received open-close surgery and 104 patients underwent main tumor and visible pleural nodule resection. Tumor resection significantly prolonged OS (hazard ratio [HR]: 0.408, P < 0.001), local PFS (HR: 0.283, P < 0.001), regional PFS (HR: 0.506, P = 0.005), and distant metastasis (HR: 0.595, P = 0.032). Multivariable Cox analysis confirmed that surgical method was an independent prognostic factor for OS, local PFS and regional PFS, except distant metastasis. Subgroup analyses indicated that tumor resection could not improve OS in the patients who received targeted therapy (HR: 0.649, P = 0.382), however, tumor resection was beneficial for the patients who received adjuvant chemotherapy alone (HR: 0.322, P < 0.001). In the tumor resection group, lobectomy (HR: 0.960, P = 0.917) and systematic lymphadenectomy (HR: 1.512, P = 0.259) did not show survival benefit for OS. Conclusions Main tumor and visible pleural nodule resection could improve prognosis in patients with UPD who could not receive adjuvant targeted therapy. Sublobar resection without systematic lymphadenectomy may be the optimal procedure.