Background The optimal treatment for elderly patients with early-stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) remains inconclusive. Previous studies have shown that stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) provides encouraging local control though higher incidence of toxicity in elderly than younger populations. The objective of this study was to compare the outcomes of SBRT and surgical treatment in elderly patients with clinical stage I-II NSCLC. Methods This retrospective analysis included 205 patients aged >= 70 years with clinical stage I NSCLC who underwent SBRT or surgery at Zhejiang Cancer Hospital (Hangzhou, China) from January 2012 to December 2017. A propensity score matching analysis was performed between the two groups. In addition, we compared outcomes and related toxicity in both study arms. Results Each group included 35 patients who met the inclusion criteria. Median follow-up was 50.1 (0.8-74.4) months for surgery and 35.5 (11.5-71.4) months for SBRT. The rate of cancer-specific survival was similar between the two treatment arms (p = 0.958). In patients who underwent surgery, the corresponding 3- and 5-year cancer-specific survival rates were 85.3 and 81.7%, respectively. In those who received radiotherapy, these rates were 91.3 and 74.9%, respectively. Moreover, the 3- and 5-year locoregional control in patients who underwent surgery were 90.0 and 80.0%, respectively. In those who received radiotherapy, these rates were 91.1 and 84.1%, respectively. Notably, the observed differences in progression-free survival were not statistically significant (p = 0.934). In the surgery group, grade 1-2 complications were observed in eleven patients (31%). One patient died due to perioperative infection within 30 days following surgery. There was no grade 3-5 toxicity observed in the SBRT group. Conclusions The outcomes of surgery and SBRT in elderly patients with early-stage NSCLC were similar.