Abstract Phosphate removal is important in the control of eutrophication of water bodies. Adsorption is one of the promising approaches for the removal of phosphate, which could serve as a supplement for the biological phosphate removal process commonly used in the wastewater treatment industry to meet the discharge requirement when the biological performance is deteriorated from changes of operation conditions. Amorphous zirconium oxide nanoparticles were synthesized by a simple and low-cost hydrothermal process, and their phosphate removal performance was explored in aqueous environment under various conditions. A fast adsorption of phosphate was observed in the kinetics study, and their adsorption capacity was determined at about 99.01 mg/g at pH 6.2 in the equilibrium adsorption isotherm study. Commonly coexisting anions showed no or minimum effect on their phosphate adsorption performance. The phosphate adsorption showed little pH dependence in the range from pH 2 to 6, while it decreased sharply with the pH increase above pH 7. After adsorption, phosphate on these am-ZrO2 nanoparticles could be easily desorbed by NaOH solution washing. Both the macroscopic and microscopic techniques demonstrated that the phosphate adsorption mechanism of am-ZrO2 nanoparticles followed the inner-sphere complexing mechanism, and the surface hydroxyl groups played a key role in the phosphate adsorption.