Assessing carbon footprint (CF) of crop production in a whole crop life-cycle could provide insights into the contribution of crop production to climate change and help to identify possible greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation options. In the current study, data for the major crops of China were collected from the national statistical archive on cultivation area, yield, application rates of fertilizer, pesticide, diesel, plastic film, irrigated water, etc. The CF of direct and indirect carbon emissions associated with or caused by these agricultural inputs was quantified with published emission factors. In general, paddy rice, wheat, maize and soybean of China had mean CFs of 2472, 794, 781 and 222 kg carbon equivalent (CE)/ha, and 0·37, 0·14, 0·12 and 0·10 kg CE/kg product, respectively. For dry crops (i.e. those grown without flooding the fields: wheat, maize and soybean), 0·78 of the total CFs was contributed by nitrogen (N) fertilizer use, including both direct soil nitrous oxide (N2O) emission and indirect emissions from N fertilizer manufacture. Meanwhile, direct methane (CH4) emissions contributed 0·69 on average to the total CFs of flooded paddy rice. Moreover, the difference in N fertilizer application rates explained 0·86–0·93 of the provincial variations of dry crop CFs while that in CH4 emissions could explain 0·85 of the provincial variation of paddy rice CFs. When a 30% reduction in N fertilization was considered, a potential reduction in GHGs of 60 megatonne (Mt) carbon dioxide equivalent from production of these crops was projected. The current work highlights opportunities to gain GHG emission reduction in production of crops associated with good management practices in China.