In this study, the sorption behavior of a wide variety of N-, S-, and O-heterocyclic compounds (NSOs) to reference soils (Eurosoils 1-5) was characterized by a soil column chromatography (SCC) approach. The major goal was to identify the compound specific and environmental factors influencing sorption processes. The sorption of S- and O-heterocyclic compounds (thiophene, benzothiophene, 5-methylbenzo[b]thiophene, benzofuran, 2-methylbenzofuran, and 2,3-dimethylbenzofuran) was generally controlled by nonspecific interactions with soil organic carbon (OC). With regard to non-ionizable N-heterocyclic compounds, pyrrole, 1-methylpyrrole, and pyrimidine were hardly retarded in any soil. The sorption of indole, 2-hydroxyquinoline, and benzotriazole was dominated by specific interaction (e.g., complexation of surface-bound cations) rather than partition to soil OC. The sorption of ionizable N-heterocyclic compounds (quinoline, isoquinoline, quinaldine, 2-methyl-pyridine, and pyridine) can be described by a conceptual model including partitioning to soil OC, cation exchange, and an additional sorption process (probably surface complexation of the neutral species). Cation exchange was usually the dominant mechanism in the sorption of ionizable compounds if the protonated fraction of the compound exceeded 5%. Otherwise, surface complexation became dominant. Soil pH was the most important factor influencing the sorption of ionizable NSOs. Our study suggests that a fairly precise assessment of sorption in most soils can be expected for N-, S-, and O-heterocyclic compounds if the three sorption mechanisms are taken into account where appropriate. Deviations from this behavior indicated special cases where additional soil specific properties (e.g., accessible surface, CEC, charge density) need to be considered such as for 2-methylpyridine and pyridine sorption to Eurosoil 1. © 2006 American Chemical Society.