While the cardinality of a finite set is just the number of its elements, extending the notion to infinite sets usually starts with defining the notion of comparison of arbitrary sets (some of which are possibly infinite).

If |A| ≤ |B| and |B| ≤ |A|, then |A| = |B| (a fact known as Schröder–Bernstein theorem). The axiom of choice is equivalent to the statement that |A| ≤ |B| or |B| ≤ |A| for every A, B.[6][7]

In the above section, "cardinality" of a set was defined functionally. In other words, it was not defined as a specific object itself. However, such an object can be defined as follows.

The relation of having the same cardinality is called equinumerosity, and this is an equivalence relation on the class of all sets. The equivalence class of a set A under this relation, then, consists of all those sets which have the same cardinality as A. There are two ways to define the "cardinality of a set":

Assuming the axiom of choice, the cardinalities of the infinite sets are denoted

If the axiom of choice holds, the law of trichotomy holds for cardinality. Thus we can make the following definitions:

The continuum hypothesis states that there is no cardinal number between the cardinality of the reals and the cardinality of the natural numbers, that is,

However, this hypothesis can neither be proved nor disproved within the widely accepted ZFC axiomatic set theory, if ZFC is consistent.

Cardinal arithmetic can be used to show not only that the number of points in a real number line is equal to the number of points in any segment of that line, but that this is equal to the number of points on a plane and, indeed, in any finite-dimensional space. These results are highly counterintuitive, because they imply that there exist proper subsets and proper supersets of an infinite set S that have the same size as S, although S contains elements that do not belong to its subsets, and the supersets of S contain elements that are not included in it.

The first of these results is apparent by considering, for instance, the tangent function, which provides a one-to-one correspondence between the interval (−½π, ½π) and R (see also Hilbert's paradox of the Grand Hotel).

The second result was first demonstrated by Cantor in 1878, but it became more apparent in 1890, when Giuseppe Peano introduced the space-filling curves, curved lines that twist and turn enough to fill the whole of any square, or cube, or hypercube, or finite-dimensional space. These curves are not a direct proof that a line has the same number of points as a finite-dimensional space, but they can be used to obtain such a proof.

From this, one can show that in general, the cardinalities of unions and intersections are related by the following equation:[12]