The minimum sperm count and quality that must be identified during microdissection testicular sperm extraction (micro-TESE) to deem the procedure successful remains to be established. We conducted a retrospective study of 81 consecutive men with non-obstructive azoospermia who underwent a primary (first) micro-TESE between March 2007 and October 2013. Final assessment of sperm recovery [reported on the day of (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) ICSI] was recorded as (i) successful (available spermatozoa for ICSI) or (ii) unsuccessful (no spermatozoa for ICSI). The decision to perform a unilateral (with limited or complete microdissection) or bilateral micro-TESE was guided by the intra-operative identification of sperm recovery (≥5 motile or non-motile sperm) from the first testicle. Overall, sperm recovery was successful in 56% (45/81) of the men. A unilateral micro-TESE was performed in 47% (38/81) of the men (based on intra-operative identification of sperm) and in 100% (38/38) of these men, spermatozoa was found on final assessment. In 42% (16/38) of the unilateral cases, a limited microdissection was performed (owing to the rapid intra-operative identification of sperm). The remaining 43 men underwent a bilateral micro-TESE and 16% (7/43) of these men had sperm identified on final assessment. The cumulative ICSI pregnancy rates (per cycle started and per embryo transfer) were 47% (21/45) and 60% (21/35), respectively, with a mean (±SD) of 1.9 ± 1.0 embryos transferred. The data demonstrate that intra-operative assessment of sperm recovery can correctly identify those men that require a unilateral micro-TESE. Moreover, the rapid identification of sperm recovery can allow some men to undergo a limited unilateral micro-TESE and avoid the need for complete testicular microdissection.