BACKGROUND: The combination of mulch with N fertilizer application is a common agronomic technique used in the production of rainfed maize (Zea mays L.) to achieve higher yields under conditions of optimum planting density and adequate N supply. However, the combined effects of mulch, planting density, and N fertilizer application rate on plant N uptake and N translocation efficiency are not known. The objective of this study was to quantify the interaction effect of mulch, planting density, and N fertilizer application rate on maize grain yield, N uptake, N translocation, and N translocation efficiency. The experiment was arranged in a randomized complete block design with three factors (2 mulch levels × 2 planting densities × 4 N fertilizer application rates) replicated four times. RESULTS: There was a significant interaction among mulch, plant density, and N fertilizer on maize grain yield, kernel number per cob, N uptake, N translocation, and N translocation efficiency. Averaged over the 3 years of the study, total plant N uptake at silking ranged from 79 to 149 kg N ha- 1 with no mulch and from 76 to 178 kg N ha- 1 with mulch. The N uptake at silking in different plant organs ranked as leaf > grain > stem > cob. Averaged across all factors, the highest N translocation was observed in leaves, which was 59.4 and 88.7% higher than observed in stems and ears, respectively. The mean vegetative organ N translocation efficiency averaged over mulch, planting density, and N fertilizer application rate treatments decreased in the order of leaf > stem > cob. CONCLUSIONS: Mulch, planting density, and N fertilizer application rate not only have significant effects on improving maize grain yield and NUE, but also on N uptake, N translocation, and N translocation efficiency. Our results showed clearly that under high planting density, the combination of mulch and moderate N fertilizer application rate was the optimal strategy for increasing maize grain yield and N use efficiency.