The modern Tianshan is an active intracontinental range in central Asia. Its initial timing is poorly known and still hotly debated. As the subsidence of foreland basins is intrinsically coupled with the uplift of orogenic wedges, the foreland sedimentary records may accurately constrain the Tianshan uplifting history. To better address the question, we analyse a seismic profile across the southern Junggar foreland basin to decipher its tectonic and stratigraphic history. Four structural layers can be identified in an ascending order: the Permian – Lower Jurassic transtension-related layer, the Jurassic – Cretaceous thermal-subsistence layer, the Palaeogene layer and the Miocene – Quaternary foreland sedimentary layer. The oldest sedimentary sequence in the foreland succession is of the Shawan Formation deposited at ~24 Ma based on magnetostratigraphic constraints. This indicates that foreland deformation in the northern Tianshan and uplifting of the modern Tianshan probably initiated at the beginning of the Miocene.