Field experiments were conducted at the village Kasiadihi, Dhenkanal district, Orissa, India during wet seasons 2001, 2002 and 2003 under non water-stressed conditions (0–25 cm standing water) to assess variability in N uptake and utilization by medium and late duration rice varieties. The N rates were 0, 40, 80 and 120 kg N/ha applied as urea in four equal splits at transplanting, active tiller initiation, panicle initiation and flowering stages. The grain yield response was up to 80 kg N/ha. The optimum grain yield attainable by the efficient medium duration varieties was 4·5 t/ha. The N efficient late duration varieties produced optimum grain yield of 5·8 t/ha. The relationship for total dry matter and grain yield production between N fertilized (40, 80 and 120 kg N/ha) and non-fertilized treatments were all significant, suggesting cultivar selection under optimum N fertilized conditions. The difference in optimum yield of the medium and late duration varieties was due to the differences in the amount of N uptake and its use efficiency by the plant for grain production. There was a curvilinear relationship between grain yield and N use efficiency for grain production. The relationship between N use efficiency for grain production and N contents of leaf, stem and grain at maturity was quadratic. The optimum plant N use efficiency of medium duration varieties was 49 kg grain/kg N uptake, achieved with leaf, stem and grain N contents of 10, 8 and 14 g/kg, respectively, at maturity. For late duration varieties, the optimum plant N use efficiency was 68 kg grain/kg N uptake and it was maintained with leaf and stem N content of 4·0 g/kg each and grain N content of 9·0 g/kg at maturity. The N content in plant organs could be the selection guide used to obtain efficient rice varieties.