Abstract Research on crop response to deficit irrigation is important to reduce agricultural water use in areas where water is a limited resource. Two field experiments were conducted on a loam soil in northeast Spain to characterize the response of maize ( Zea mays L.) to deficit irrigation under surface irrigation. The growing season was divided into three phases: vegetative, flowering and grain filling. The irrigation treatments consisted of all possible combinations of full irrigation or limited irrigation in the three phases. Limited irrigation was applied by increasing the interval between irrigations. Soil water status, crop growth, above-ground biomass, yield and its components were measured. Results showed that flowering was the most sensitive stage to water deficit, with reductions in biomass, yield and harvest index. Average grain yield of treatments with deficit irrigation around flowering (691 g m −2) was significantly lower than that of the well-irrigated treatments (1069 g m (2). Yield reduction was mainly due to a lower number of grains per square metre. Deficit irrigation or higher interval between irrigations during the grain filling phase did not significantly affect crop growth and yield. It was possible to maintain relatively high yields in maize if small water deficits caused by increasing the interval between irrigations were limited to periods other than the flowering stage. Irrigation water use efficiency (IWUE) was higher in treatments fully irrigated around flowering.