Metallothionein (MT)-3 has cell growth inhibitory activity, and is the only currently known MT subtype with unique physiological functions. The expression levels of MT-1E, a subtype of MT-1, were positively correlated with the degree of esophageal cancer malignancy. The present study aimed to investigate the effects of MT-3 and MT-1E gene transfection on the proliferation, cell cycle, and apoptosis of esophageal cancer cells. The cationic liposome method was used to transfect the esophageal cancer strains Eca-109 and TE13. Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction was used to detect target gene expression, 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide reduction was applied to detect cell proliferation, and flow cytometry was used for cell cycle and apoptosis detection. Esophagealcancer cells with MT-3 and MT-1E gene transfection showed high expression of the foreign target gene and mRNA. Cells with MT-3 gene transfection showed markedly inhibited proliferation (P < 0.05), a significantly higher proportion of cells in the G0/G1 phase (P < 0.05), a significantly lower proportion of cells in the S phase (P < 0.05), and a significantly increased apoptosis rate (P < 0.05). Cells with MT-1E gene transfection did not show significant changes in proliferation, cell cycle, or apoptosis rate (P > 0.05). Therefore, the upregulation of MT-3 gene expression can inhibit esophageal cancer cell proliferation and induce apoptosis, which may be achieved by blocking the tumor cell growth cycle, whereas effects of the MT-1E gene on the proliferation of esophageal cancer cells were not evident.