She was built by Vulkan of Stettin. Launched on May 4 1897, she made her maiden voyage on September 19 of that year, from Bremerhaven to New York. In November 1897, she set an eastbound crossing record from Sandy Hook to the Needles and four months later she captured the westbound Blue Riband. She held these records until Hapag's Deutschland took the eastbound record in July 1900 and the westbound one in September 1903.
She became the first liner to have a commercial wireless telegraphy system when in February 1900 the Marconi Company installed one. Communications were demonstrated with systems installed at the Borkum Island lighthouse and Borkum Riff lightship, as well as with British stations.
The ship escaped a massive fire at NDL's Hoboken, New Jersey, piers in June 1900, which badly damaged her running mates, Main, Bremen and Saale and killed 161 crewmen on those ships. Six years later, in November 1906, she was struck broadside while trying to cross in front of Royal Mail's Orinoco; five passengers on Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse were killed by the impact and a hole 21 meters (70 feet) wide by 8 meters (26 feet) high was made in her hull. An Admiralty Court found the accident to be entirely attributable to Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse.
In August 1914 the ship was commandeered by the Kaiserliche Marine and made an auxiliary cruiser, assigned to commerce raiding off the Canary Islands. After sparing two passenger ships because they were carrying women passengers, she sank two freighters before she herself sank on August 26 after being attacked by HMS Highflyer. British sources insisted that Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse sank because of the damage inflicted by Highflyer. German authorities claimed her crew had scuttled her after she exhausted her munitions, to avoid capture. Whatever the cause, she was the first passenger ship sunk during World War I.