Identification of new nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) biomarkers is of great clinical value for the diagnosis and treatment of NPC. HOTAIR, a cancer-related long non-coding RNA, was tested and its prognostic value for NPC was evaluated. As determined using in situ hybridization (ISH), 91 of 160 (56.87%) paraffin-embedded NPC biopsies showed high expression levels of HOTAIR (staining index score ≥ 6). HOTAIR was upregulated in tumors with a large size (P = 0.021), more advanced clinical stage (P = 0.012) and increased lymph node tumor burden (P = 0.005). Quantified using real-time PCR, HOTAIR expression levels in fresh tissue and paraffin-embedded samples were 5.2 ~ 48.4-fold higher compared with non-cancer tissue samples. Moreover, HOTAIR expression levels increased with clinical stage progression, which was consistent with ISH findings in the paraffin-embedded tissue. Most importantly, NPC patients with higher HOTAIR levels had a poor prognosis for overall survival using univariate and multivariate analysis. In addition, HOTAIR mediated the migration, invasion and proliferation of NPC cells in vitro. HOTAIR is a potential biomarker for the prognosis of NPC, and dysregulation of HOTAIR might play an important role in NPC progression.