When Bicycle Thieves was released in Italy, it was viewed with hostility and as portraying Italians in a negative way. Italian critic Guido Aristarco praised it, but also complained that "sentimentality might at times take the place of artistic emotion." Fellow Italian neorealist film director Luchino Visconti criticized the film, saying that it was a mistake to use a professional actor to dub over Lamberto Maggiorani's dialogue. Luigi Bartolini, the author of the novel from which de Sica drew his title, was highly critical of the film, feeling that the spirit of his book had been thoroughly betrayed, since his protagonist was a middle-class intellectual and his theme was the breakdown of civil order in the face of anarchic communism.
Bicycle Thieves has received acclaim from critics ever since its release, with the film-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reporting 98% positive reviews from 54 reviews, with an average 9.1 out of 10 rating. The picture is also in the Vatican's Best Films List for portraying humanistic values.
Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, lauded the film and its message in his review. He wrote, "Again the Italians have sent us a brilliant and devastating film in Vittorio De Sica's rueful drama of modern city life, The Bicycle Thief. Widely and fervently heralded by those who had seen it abroad (where it already has won several prizes at various film festivals), this heart-tearing picture of frustration, which came to [the World Theater] yesterday, bids fair to fulfill all the forecasts of its absolute triumph over here. For once more the talented De Sica, who gave us the shattering Shoeshine, that desperately tragic demonstration of juvenile corruption in post-war Rome, has laid hold upon and sharply imaged in simple and realistic terms a major—indeed, a fundamental and universal—dramatic theme. It is the isolation and loneliness of the little man in this complex social world that is ironically blessed with institutions to comfort and protect mankind". Pierre Leprohon wrote in Cinéma D'Aujourd that "what must not be ignored on the social level is that the character is shown not at the beginning of a crisis but at its outcome. One need only to look at his face, his uncertain gait, his hesitant or fearful attitudes to understand that Ricci is already a victim, a diminished man who has lost his confidence." Lotte Eisner called it the best Italian film since World War II and Robert Winnington called it "the most successful record of any foreign film in British cinema."
When the film was re-released in the late 1990s Bob Graham, staff film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, gave the drama a positive review: "The roles are played by non-actors, Lamberto Maggiorani as the father and Enzo Staiola as the solemn boy, who sometimes appears to be a miniature man. They bring a grave dignity to De Sica's unblinking view of post-war Italy. The wheel of life turns and grinds people down; the man who was riding high in the morning is brought low by nightfall. It is impossible to imagine this story in any other form than De Sica's. The new black-and-white print has an extraordinary range of grey tones that get darker as life closes in".