Abstract Nanofibrillated cellulose (NFC) and their derivatives were prepared using three chemical surface modification strategies. All grafting was characterized by FTIR and contact angle measurements in order to evaluate the efficiency of grafting. Antibacterial activities of neat and grafted samples were investigated against two kinds of bacteria (i.e. Gram+ (Staphylococcus aureus) and Gram− (Klebsiella pneumoniae)). All the grafted samples displayed promising results with at least bacteriostatic effect or bactericidal properties. They also strongly enhanced the photo-catalytic antimicrobial effect of TiO2. This study proves that it is better to use grafted NFC either alone or for functionalization with TiO2 if anti-bacterial properties are desired. The cellulose backbone is known to be easily biodegradable in different biodegradation conditions and environments. The chemical surface modifications applied on NFC in the present work did not negatively influence this valuable property of cellulose but help for monitoring this property, which could be very useful for paper, packaging and composites.