Abstract Aims To evaluate long-term results of patients with small solitary hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and well-preserved liver function who received radiofrequency ablation (RFA) as first-line treatment. Materials and methods Between November 1999 and June 2007, 247 patients with solitary HCC ≤5 cm and liver status scored as Child-Pugh class A were enrolled. RFA was performed in 224 patients as first-line treatment; 23 patients excluded from RFA because of unfavorable tumor location or their unwillingness, and all of these patients converted to surgical resection. Results In the 224 patients treated with RFA, the overall 5-, 7-, 10-year survival rates were 59.8%, 55.2%, 33.9%, respectively, and the median of overall survival was 76.1 months. Complete ablation was achieved in 216 patients (96.4%). Major complications occurred in two patients (0.9%), with no treatment-related death or needle track seeding. Indocyanine green retention rate in 15 min (ICGR15) ( P = 0.014) and prothrombin activity ( P = 0.004) were associated with overall survival. A subgroup of patients with ICGR15 ≤ 10% and prothrombin activity >75% had 5-, 7-, 10-year survival rates of 67.1%, 64.2%, 57.1%, respectively, with a median survival of 87.7 months. The 10-year recurrence-free, tumor-free survival rates were 17.5%, 28.2%, respectively. Serum albumin was the only factor that significantly impacted recurrence-free and tumor-free survival ( P = 0.008, 0.002, respectively). Conclusion RFA is considered to be the treatment of first choice for patients with solitary HCC ≤5 cm and well-preserved liver function. Surgery can be used as second-line therapy for few patients if RFA is unfeasible.