Abstract Stainless steel exhibits a pronounced response to cold-work and heat input. As a result, the behaviour of structural stainless steel sections, as influenced by strength, ductility and residual stress presence, is sensitive to the precise means by which the sections are produced. This paper explores the presence and influence of residual stresses in cold-rolled stainless steel box sections using experimental and numerical techniques. In previous studies, residual stress magnitudes have been inferred from surface strain measurements and an assumed through-thickness stress distribution. In the present study, through-thickness residual stresses in cold-rolled stainless steel box sections have been measured directly by means of X-ray diffraction and their effect on structural behaviour has been carefully assessed through detailed non-linear numerical modelling. Geometric imperfections, flat and corner material properties and the average compressive response of stainless steel box sections were also examined experimentally and the results have been fully reported. From the X-ray diffraction measurements, it was concluded that the influence of through-thickness (bending) residual stresses in cold-rolled stainless steel box sections could be effectively represented by a rectangular stress block distribution. The developed ABAQUS numerical models included features such as non-linear material stress–strain characteristics, initial geometric imperfections, residual stresses (membrane and bending) and enhanced strength corner properties. The residual stresses, together with the corresponding plastic strains, were included in the FE models by means of the SIGINI and HARDINI Fortran subroutines. Of the two residual stress components, the bending residual stresses were found to be larger in magnitude and of greater (often positive) influence on the structural behaviour of thin-walled cold-formed stainless steel sections.