Powered by a combination of steam and sail, RMS Oceanic has twelve boilers generating steam for a single four-cylinder compound steam engine. A single funnel exhausts smoke and four masts carry sails. The hull is constructed of iron and divided into eleven watertight compartments. Passenger accommodations are located on the two decks concealed within the hull. RMS Oceanic can carry 166 First Class passengers, referred to as Saloon Passengers in the day and 1,000 Steerage Passengers, along with a 143-man crew. White Star spares no expense in her construction, and the contemporary press describes the ship as an “imperial yacht.”
RMS Oceanic leaves Liverpool for her maiden voyage on March 2, 1871 carrying only 64 passengers, under Captain Sir Digby Murray. Not long after departing, she has to return because of overheated bearings. Her voyage restarts on March 16. From that point onward, RMS Oceanic is a success for The White Star Line.
In January, 1872, RMS Oceanic undergoes a refit, during which a large forecastle is added to help prevent the bow being inundated during high seas. Two new boilers are added to increase steam pressure and thus engine power, and the four masts are shortened.
RMS Oceanic continues sailing with the White Star line on the Liverpool to New York City route until March 11, 1875, when she is chartered to the Occidental & Oriental Steamship Company, for service between San Francisco, Yokohama and Hong Kong. White Star provides the officers, while the crew is Chinese. The ship itself remains in White Star colours, but flies the O&O flag. During the repositioning voyage from Liverpool to Hong Kong, RMS Oceanic sets a speed record for that route. Later, she also sets a speed record for Yokohama to San Francisco in December 1876, and then breaks her own record over that route in November, 1889, with a time of 13 days, 14 hours and 5 minutes.
On January 7, 1890, Nellie Bly boards RMS Oceanic in Yokohama to cross the Pacific as part of her voyage Around the World in Seventy-Two Days. She arrives in San Francisco on January 21, 1890, which is a day behind schedule as a result of rough weather.
In 1895, RMS Oceanic is returned to White Star, which plans to put her back into service. She is sent back to Harland and Wolff for re-engining, but when the ship is inspected closely, it is found to be uneconomical to perform all the work needed. Instead, RMS Oceanic is sold for scrap, leaving Belfast for the last time on February 10, 1896, under tow, for a scrapyard on the River Thames.