Circulating tumor cell (CTC) counts are an established prognostic marker in metastatic prostate, breast and colorectal cancer, and recent data suggest a similar role in late stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). However, due to sensitivity constraints in current enrichment-based CTC detection technologies, there are few published data about CTC prevalence rates and morphologic heterogeneity in early-stage NSCLC, or the correlation of CTCs with disease progression and their usability for clinical staging. We investigated CTC counts, morphology and aggregation in early stage, locally advanced and metastatic NSCLC patients by using a fluid-phase biopsy approach that identifies CTCs without relying on surface-receptor-based enrichment and presents them in sufficiently high definition (HD) to satisfy diagnostic pathology image quality requirements. HD-CTCs were analyzed in blood samples from 78 chemotherapy-naïve NSCLC patients. 73% of the total population had a positive HD-CTC count (>0 CTC in 1 mL of blood) with a median of 4.4 HD-CTCs mL⁻¹ (range 0-515.6) and a mean of 44.7 (±95.2) HD-CTCs mL⁻¹. No significant difference in the medians of HD-CTC counts was detected between stage IV (n = 31, range 0-178.2), stage III (n = 34, range 0-515.6) and stages I/II (n = 13, range 0-442.3). Furthermore, HD-CTCs exhibited a uniformity in terms of molecular and physical characteristics such as fluorescent cytokeratin intensity, nuclear size, frequency of apoptosis and aggregate formation across the spectrum of staging. Our results demonstrate that despite stringent morphologic inclusion criteria for the definition of HD-CTCs, the HD-CTC assay shows high sensitivity in the detection and characterization of both early- and late-stage lung cancer CTCs. Extensive studies are warranted to investigate the prognostic value of CTC profiling in early-stage lung cancer. This finding has implications for the design of extensive studies examining screening, therapy and surveillance in lung cancer patients.