The interaction between biochar and soil changes nitrogen (N) dynamics in different ecosystems. Although multiple studies have reported influences of biochar on soil inorganic N (SIN) including ammonium (NH4+-N) and nitrate (NO3−-N), the influences reported are contradictory. We undertook a meta-analysis to investigate how biochar properties and the interaction among biochar, soil and fertilisation affect SIN. This quantitative analysis used 56 studies with 1080 experimental cases from manuscripts published between 2010 and 2015. Overall, we found that biochar reduced SIN regardless of experimental conditions (approximately − 11 ± 2% of NH4+-N and − 10 ± 1.6% of NO3−-N); however, 95% of cases were observed within one year after biochar application. SIN was best explained by residence time of biochar in soil, pyrolysis temperature, application rate, fertiliser type, and soil pH. The effects of biochar were complex due to the interaction of biochar with environmental factors. Most biochar trials used wood as a feedstock, but woody biochar did not decrease SIN as much as other plant-derived biochars. When biochar was used with NH4-based fertilisers, SIN decreased compared to biochar with no fertiliser. In contrast, adding organic fertiliser with biochar increased SIN compared to biochar alone. SIN was clearly reduced after one month of biochar application, suggesting that biochar should be applied at least one month prior to planting so plants are not affected by decreased N. Our results revealed that the interactions between biochar and environmental factors, pyrolysis temperature of biochar and biochar surface properties are the main driving factors affecting SIN. There were limited long-term studies of > 1 year, thus the long-term effects of biochar on SIN still remain unclear.