Objectives Sorafenib (SOR) is an orally administered molecular targeted agent in the systemic chemotherapy of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). However, the partial response of SOR is limited due to its adverse side effect and high heterogeneity and resistant phenotype of HCC. In the current study, we investigated synergistic effects of SOR and usnic acid (UA) on HCC cell lines including HepG2 and SNU-449, and a normal cell line, HUVEC. Methods The antiproliferative and apoptotic effects of combination therapy and SOR alone were analysed by WST-1 and Annexin V analysis, respectively. Furthermore, cell cycle, gene expression analysis of SOR-targeted kinases and acridine orange-ethidium bromide staining were also performed in combined treatments. Key findings Our results demonstrated that SOR and UA combination indicated a strong synergism in HCC cell lines and reduced SOR toxicity in HUVEC cells. Additionally, the combination treatment SOR and UA significantly induced much more apoptotic cell death and G0/G1 arrest through downregulation of SOR-targeted kinases. Conclusions Consequently, SOR and UA combination could be a new therapeutic strategy for HCC treatment.