Purpose Prior studies have compared unicompartmental knee arthroplasty (UKA) with high tibial osteotomy (HTO) suggesting that both procedures had good functional outcomes. But none had established the superiority of one of the two procedures for patients with high expectation including return to impact sport. The aim of this study was to compare functional outcomes and ability to return to impact sport of active patients defined with a pre-arthritis University of California and Los Angeles activity (UCLA) score > 8, after UKA or HTO procedures. Methods A retrospective review of patients with a pre-arthritis UCLA score > 8 operated between January 2014 and September 2017 has identified 91 patients with open-wedge HTO and 117 patients with UKA. A matching process based on age (± 3 years) and gender allowed to include 50 patients in each group for comparative analysis. Patient reported outcomes included Knee Osteoarthritis Outcomes Score (KOOS), UCLA Score, Knee Society Score (KSS) and time to return to sport or previous professional activities at 3, 6, 12 and 24 months following surgery. Results Mean time to return to sport activities or previous professional activities were significantly lower for the HTO group than for UKA group [respectively, 4.9 ± 2.2 months for HTO group vs 5.8 ± 6.2 months for UKA group (p = 0.006) and 3 ± 3 months for HTO group vs 4 ± 3 months for UKA group (p = 0.006)]. At 24-month follow-up, UCLA score, KOOS Sports Sub-score and KSS activity score were significantly higher for HTO group than for UKA group (Δ: 2 CI 95% (1.3-2.5 points) p < 0.0001, (Δ: 10.9 CI 95% (2.9-18.9 points) p = 0.04 and Δ: 7.8 CI 95% (2.4-13.4 points) p = 0.006, respectively) and 31 patients (62%) were practicing impact sport in the HTO group versus 14 (28%) in the UKA group (odd-ratio 4.2 CI 95% (1.8-9.7) p < 0.0001). Conclusion HTO offers statistically significant quicker return to sport activities and previous professional activities with a higher rate of patients able to practice impact activity (62% for HTO vs 28% for UKA) and better sports related functional scores at two years after surgery compared to UKA. Level of evidence III retrospective case-control study.