303 vs. 304 stainless steel: what’s the difference?

Stainless steel pins

Austenitic stainless steels vary in their elemental and chemical composition. This stainless steel type shares many of the same characteristics, but their individual properties set them apart from each other. We've put together this guide to help you understand not only how these two grades are similar, but also their main difference. We'll cover:

What is 303 stainless steel?

303 is an austenitic stainless steel grade with excellent machinability due to its sulfur content which ranges between 0.15% and 0.35%. Its chromium content is 18% and nickel, 8% – 10%. The corrosion resistance this would normally provide is offset by the sulfur content to a large degree. The result is, the corrosion resistance is lowered, along with a slight decrease in toughness. 

That's the tradeoff for being readily machinable. It doesn't require heavy work to form and press, which can often make it more expensive than alloy 304. While 303 is less corrosion resistant than 304, it still has good resistance to oxidation when intermittently exposed to temperatures of up to 1400°F.

Note, the sulfur content gives 303 poor weldability, which can result in cracking. Also, sometimes selenium is used instead of sulfur. This has the same result of sulfur, improving machinability and lowering corrosion resistance. 

You can learn more in our guide, Understanding stainless-steel grades. 

What is 303 stainless steel used for?

The characteristics of 303 stainless steel mean that you shouldn't use it in highly corrosive environments. There are better austenitic stainless steel grades for that purpose, such as 304 and 316. 

303 stainless steel is not food grade, as it's vulnerable to sensitization. This happens when the stainless steel is heated to temperatures between 842°F and 1472°F (450°C and 800°C) for an extended period of time. Chromium carbides form at the material's grain boundaries, which means it can't form the passive layer that provides corrosion resistance. The way around this is to restrict the amount of time it's exposed to high temperatures. 

All of that said, 303 stainless steel can be used in some food handling and preparation equipment, though its applications are limited to lower corrosive environments. 

Industry Typical applications Why
Food preparation equipment Conveyors, trays, carts & refrigeration units Easy to clean
Aircraft Shafts, gears, aircraft fittings

Non-seizing and non-galling properties are ideal for moving parts

High machinability for producing complex shapes

Fastening components Screws, nuts, bolts High machinability – easy to produce intricate shapes 
Electronic components Spacers, brackets, venting elements Non magnetic, high machinability
Industrial equipment & machinery Bushings, forged shafts, valve bodies, valves, valve trim, fittings High machinability – easy to produce complex shapes with precise tolerances & tight fits


Examples of 303 stainless steel used in components include:

Vent plugs

Vent plugs

Concealed hinge – 303 stainless steel pin

Concealed hinge – 303 stainless steel pin

One-piece pull handles

One-piece pull handles

Lobed knob

Lobed knob

Threaded index plunger

Threaded index plunger

Stainless steel on conveyor belt

What is 304 stainless steel?

304 is another austenitic stainless steel grade. It contains a minimum of 18% chromium and 8% – 10.5% nickel with a maximum of 0.08% carbon. 

Grade 304 contains no sulfur, so the chromium is able to provide a passive oxide layer on the surface, protecting it from rust and corrosion. Along with nickel, chromium also enhances the steel's toughness and ductility, making it easy to work with, although it lacks grade 303's high machinability. 

304 is tougher than 303 alloy, but it still has good ductility. This makes it easy to fabricate. It also contains small traces of manganese and silicon, which add to the material's strength, formability, and weldability. 304 also stands up to high temperatures. These all make 304 highly corrosion resistant.

Like grade 303 alloy, 304 alloy is non-magnetic, as most austenitic stainless steel alloys typically are. 304 is the most common austenitic stainless steel in use. 

Find out how 304 compares to other grades in our guides:

304 vs 430 stainless steel

304 vs 316 stainless steel

What is 304 stainless steel used for?

303 vs. 304 stainless steel uses are often similar. Specifically, 304 is commonly used in these applications:

Industry Typical applications Why
Food processing equipment Tanks, pipes & containers Corrosion resistance, easy to clean
Consumer appliances Sinks, refrigerators, dishwashers Durability, corrosion resistance, aesthetic appeal
Automotive Exhaust systems, trim & grilles Corrosion resistance, aesthetic appeal
Medical equipment Surgical instruments, dental instruments & implants Biocompatibility, corrosion resistance & withstands high-temperature cleaning processes
Chemical processing equipment Reactors, tanks & pipelines Corrosion resistance, stands up to a range of chemicals
Aerospace components Aircraft structures, engines High strength-to-weight ratio, corrosion resistant, thermal stability


Some of the small components made of 304 stainless steel include:

Car trim stainless steel

303 vs. 304 stainless steel properties

Except for melting point, 303 and 304 share the same properties. Why, for example, would their density be the same when they have a slightly different chemical composition? As austenitic stainless steel alloys, their crystal structure is very similar, with the atoms arranged in a regular, repeating pattern. 304 can have a little more chromium, though not always. The addition of sulfur does not affect the crystal structure or the interatomic spacing in any meaningful way. Hence, they share the same density.

303 vs. 304 stainless steel properties

303 vs. 304 stainless steel: a comparison 

You'll notice some overlap below between the content of the two stainless steel grades. Interestingly, 303 stainless steel contains more carbon, which would ordinarily mean that this grade should be stronger. The added sulfur counteracts that characteristic, which again, is what makes 304 stronger. 

Learn more about carbon steel and stainless steel in our guide, What are the differences between carbon steel and stainless steel?

Element 303 stainless steel % 304 stainless steel %
Carbon 0.10 0.07
Chromium 17 – 19 18.0 – 19.5
Nickel 8 – 10 8.0 – 10.5
Silicon 1.00 1.00
Manganese 2.00 2.00
Phosphorous 0.045 0.045
Sulfur 0.015 - 0.35 0.015
Nitrogen 0.10 0.10
Copper 1.00 -


303 vs. 304 stainless steel strength

By now you understand that the amount of sulfur in 303 stainless steel affects its toughness in order to make it readily machinable. In general, 304 is stronger than 303 stainless steel. 304 stainless steel contains a higher percentage of chromium (18-20%) and nickel (8-10.5%) than 303 stainless steel, which not only gives it superior corrosion resistance, but higher strength.

While 303 stainless steel has slightly higher ultimate tensile strength (UTS) and yield strength than 304 due to the inclusion-forming elements sulfur and selenium, the strength of a material is not solely determined by UTS or yield strength. Other factors, such as hardness, ductility, and toughness, also play a role in determining the strength of a material. In general, 304 has better mechanical properties than 303. 

To understand the Rockwell B hardness test, see our guide, What's shore hardness and why should you care?


Properties 303 stainless steel 304 stainless steel
Ultimate Tensile Strength 100000 psi 73200 psi 
Tensile Yield Strength 60200 psi 31200 psi 
Hardness (Rockwell B) 96 96
Elongation at Break 40%  70% 


303 vs. 304 stainless steel appearance

303 and 304 have similar appearances and are often visually indistinguishable. Both alloys have a face-centered cubic crystal structure and a similar surface finish. The result is a shiny, silvery appearance with a slightly reflective surface.

However, there are some subtle differences in appearance. 303's small amounts of sulfur can give it a slightly duller look compared to 304. Additionally, 303 may exhibit visible machining marks due to its sulfur content, whereas 304 typically has a smoother, more uniform surface finish.

303 vs. 304 stainless steel differences

In summary, these are the primary characteristics of both steels:

Characteristics 303 stainless steel 304 stainless steel
Corrosion resistance Good in mildly corrosive environments Excellent
Magnetic No No
Weldability Low High
Hardens during cold forming Yes Yes
Formability Excellent Very good
Precipitation hardening stainless steels No No
Machinability (annealed) Excellent Fair
Resistance to elevated temperatures Limited High
Maximum intermittent service temperature 1400°F 1562°F 


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