For polymeric nanoparticles (NPs) to deliver more drugs to tumors than free drug solution, it is critical that the NPs establish interactions with tumor cells and avoid removal from the tumors. Since traditional polyethylene glycol (PEG) surface layer interferes with the cell-NP interaction in tumors, we used a water-soluble and blood-compatible chitosan derivative called zwitterionic chitosan (ZWC) as an alternative surface coating for poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) (PLGA) NPs. The ZWC-coated PLGA NPs showed pH-dependent surface charge profiles and differential cellular interactions according to the pH of the medium. The in vivo delivery of ZWC-coated NPs was evaluated in mice bearing LS174T-xenografts using magnetic resonance (MR) imaging and fluorescence whole body imaging, which respectively tracked iron oxide particles and indocyanine green (ICG) encapsulated in the NPs as tracers. MR imaging showed that ZWC-coated NPs were more persistent in tumors than PEG-coated NPs, in agreement with the in vitro results. However, the fluorescence imaging indicated that the increased NP retention in tumors by the ZWC coating did not significantly affect the ICG distribution in tumors due to the rapid release of the dye. This study shows that stable drug retention in NPs during circulation is a critical prerequisite to successful translation of the potential benefits of surface-engineered NPs.