Abstract Aims To assess the efficacy and safety of neoadjuvant chemotherapy (NAC) for advanced gastric cancer (AGC). Methods By searching electronic databases (PubMed, Embase, Cochrane Library) and ASCO proceedings from 1990 to 2012, all randomized controlled trials (RCTs) which compared the effect of NAC-combined surgery versus surgery alone in AGC were included. All calculations and statistical tests were performed using RevMan 5.0 software. Results 12 RCTs with a total of 1820 patients were included. All patients had locally advanced but resectable gastric cancer and received NAC. NAC can slightly improve the survival rate (OR = 1.32, 95% confidence interval (CI): 1.07–1.64, P = 0.01), with little or no significant benefits in subgroup analyses between either different population or regimens. NAC can significantly improve the 3-year progression-free survival (PFS) (OR: 1.85, 95% CI: 1.39–2.46, p < 0.0001), tumor down-staging rate (OR: 1.71, 95% CI: 1.26, 2.33, p = 0.0006) and R0 resection rate (OR: 1.38, 95% CI: 1.08–1.78, P = 0.01) of patients with AGC. There was no difference between the two arms, in terms of relapse rates (OR: 1.03, 95% CI: 0.60–1.78, P = 0.92), operative complications (OR: 1.20, 95% CI: 0.90–1.58, P = 0.21), perioperative mortality (OR: 1.14, 95% CI: 0.64–2.05, P = 0.65) and grade 3/4 adverse effects: gastrointestinal problem (OR: 0.57, 95% CI: 0.25–1.30, p = 0.18), leukopenia (OR: 0.88, 95% CI: 0.41–1.91, p = 0.75), thrombocytopenia (OR: 1.27, 95% CI: 0.27–5.93, p = 0.76). Conclusion NAC is effective and safe. However, further prospective multi-national and multi-center RCTs are still needed in order to investigate the long-term oncological and functional outcomes to define the clinical benefits of NAC and the most effective strategies for AGC.