A 9-week feeding trial was conducted to evaluate the effects of dietary cholesterol supplementation at different levels (0, 0·3, 0·6, 0·9, 1·2 and 1·5 %) on growth and cholesterol metabolism of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) fed soyabean meal (SBM)-based diets. Daily growth coefficient (DGC) steadily increased when the supplemental cholesterol was increased by up to 1·2 %, but declined upon further addition. The total cholesterol (TC), HDL-cholesterol (HDL-C) and LDL-cholesterol (LDL-C) levels in plasma generally increased when the supplemental cholesterol was increased by up to 1·2 %. Thereafter, the TC level reached a plateau, the LDL-C level showed a marked decline, whereas the HDL-C level continued to increase. Dietary cholesterol supplementation generally increased the total lipid and cholesterol levels in liver; the total lipid and TAG levels in muscle; the TC, free cholesterol, cholesteryl ester and total bile acid levels in intestinal contents; and the triiodothyronine and Ca levels in plasma. However, significant differences were mainly observed with high levels of supplemental cholesterol (0·9–1·5 %). Low levels of supplemental cholesterol (0·3–0·9 %) decreased hepatic 3-hydroxy-3-methyl-glutaryl-CoA reductase and cholesterol 7α-hydroxylase activities, but high levels of supplemental cholesterol (1·5 %) increased hepatic acyl-CoA:cholesterol acyl transferase and cholesterol 7α-hydroxylase activities. These results suggest that rainbow trout fed SBM-based diets have a certain ‘cholesterol-buffering capacity’, which in turn suggests the possibility of the inhibition of exogenous cholesterol absorption and/or inadequate endogenous production of cholesterol in trout fed SBM-based diets. DGC increased steadily with increasing supplemental cholesterol level up to 1·2 %, and the growth-promoting effects might be related to the alleviation of the negative effects caused by a soyabean diet and/or make up for the deficiency of endogenous cholesterol in rainbow trout.