In set theory, an uncountable cardinal is **inaccessible** if it cannot be obtained from smaller cardinals by the usual operations of cardinal arithmetic. More precisely, a cardinal κ is **strongly inaccessible** if it is uncountable, it is not a sum of fewer than κ cardinals smaller than κ, and implies .

The term "inaccessible cardinal" is ambiguous. Until about 1950, it meant "weakly inaccessible cardinal", but since then it usually means "strongly inaccessible cardinal". An uncountable cardinal is **weakly inaccessible** if it is a regular weak limit cardinal. It is strongly inaccessible, or just inaccessible, if it is a regular strong limit cardinal (this is equivalent to the definition given above). Some authors do not require weakly and strongly inaccessible cardinals to be uncountable (in which case is strongly inaccessible). Weakly inaccessible cardinals were introduced by Hausdorff (1908), and strongly inaccessible ones by Sierpiński & Tarski (1930) and Zermelo (1930).

Every strongly inaccessible cardinal is also weakly inaccessible, as every strong limit cardinal is also a weak limit cardinal. If the generalized continuum hypothesis holds, then a cardinal is strongly inaccessible if and only if it is weakly inaccessible.

(aleph-null) is a regular strong limit cardinal. Assuming the axiom of choice, every other infinite cardinal number is regular or a (weak) limit. However, only a rather large cardinal number can be both and thus weakly inaccessible.

An ordinal is a weakly inaccessible cardinal if and only if it is a regular ordinal and it is a limit of regular ordinals. (Zero, one, and ω are regular ordinals, but not limits of regular ordinals.) A cardinal which is weakly inaccessible and also a strong limit cardinal is strongly inaccessible.

The assumption of the existence of a strongly inaccessible cardinal is sometimes applied in the form of the assumption that one can work inside a Grothendieck universe, the two ideas being intimately connected.

Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory with Choice (ZFC) implies that the `V`_{κ} is a model of ZFC whenever κ is strongly inaccessible. And ZF implies that the Gödel universe *L*_{κ} is a model of ZFC whenever κ is weakly inaccessible. Thus, ZF together with "there exists a weakly inaccessible cardinal" implies that ZFC is consistent. Therefore, inaccessible cardinals are a type of large cardinal.

If `V` is a standard model of ZFC and κ is an inaccessible in `V`, then: `V`_{κ} is one of the intended models of Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory; and Def(`V`_{κ}) is one of the intended models of Mendelson's version of Von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory which excludes global choice, replacing limitation of size by replacement and ordinary choice; and `V`_{κ+1} is one of the intended models of Morse–Kelley set theory. Here Def (*X*) is the Δ_{0} definable subsets of *X* (see constructible universe). However, κ does not need to be inaccessible, or even a cardinal number, in order for `V`_{κ} to be a standard model of ZF (see below).

Suppose V is a model of ZFC. Either V contains no strong inaccessible or, taking κ to be the smallest strong inaccessible in V, `V`_{κ} is a standard model of ZFC which contains no strong inaccessibles. Thus, the consistency of ZFC implies consistency of ZFC+"there are no strong inaccessibles". Similarly, either V contains no weak inaccessible or, taking κ to be the smallest ordinal which is weakly inaccessible relative to any standard sub-model of V, then *L*_{κ} is a standard model of ZFC which contains no weak inaccessibles. So consistency of ZFC implies consistency of ZFC+"there are no weak inaccessibles". This shows that ZFC cannot prove the existence of an inaccessible cardinal, so ZFC is consistent with the non-existence of any inaccessible cardinals.

The issue whether ZFC is consistent with the existence of an inaccessible cardinal is more subtle. The proof sketched in the previous paragraph that the consistency of ZFC implies the consistency of ZFC + "there is not an inaccessible cardinal" can be formalized in ZFC. However, assuming that ZFC is consistent, no proof that the consistency of ZFC implies the consistency of ZFC + "there is an inaccessible cardinal" can be formalized in ZFC. This follows from Gödel's second incompleteness theorem, which shows that if ZFC + "there is an inaccessible cardinal" is consistent, then it cannot prove its own consistency. Because ZFC + "there is an inaccessible cardinal" does prove the consistency of ZFC, if ZFC proved that its own consistency implies the consistency of ZFC + "there is an inaccessible cardinal" then this latter theory would be able to prove its own consistency, which is impossible if it is consistent.

There are arguments for the existence of inaccessible cardinals that cannot be formalized in ZFC. One such argument, presented by Hrbáček & Jech (1999, p. 279), is that the class of all ordinals of a particular model *M* of set theory would itself be an inaccessible cardinal if there was a larger model of set theory extending *M* and preserving powerset of elements of *M*.

There are many important axioms in set theory which assert the existence of a proper class of cardinals which satisfy a predicate of interest. In the case of inaccessibility, the corresponding axiom is the assertion that for every cardinal *μ*, there is an inaccessible cardinal κ which is strictly larger, *μ* < *κ*. Thus, this axiom guarantees the existence of an infinite tower of inaccessible cardinals (and may occasionally be referred to as the inaccessible cardinal axiom). As is the case for the existence of any inaccessible cardinal, the inaccessible cardinal axiom is unprovable from the axioms of ZFC. Assuming ZFC, the inaccessible cardinal axiom is equivalent to the **universe axiom** of Grothendieck and Verdier: every set is contained in a Grothendieck universe. The axioms of ZFC along with the universe axiom (or equivalently the inaccessible cardinal axiom) are denoted ZFCU (not to be confused with ZFC with urelements). This axiomatic system is useful to prove for example that every category has an appropriate Yoneda embedding.

This is a relatively weak large cardinal axiom since it amounts to saying that ∞ is 1-inaccessible in the language of the next section, where ∞ denotes the least ordinal not in V, i.e. the class of all ordinals in your model.

The term "*α*-inaccessible cardinal" is ambiguous and different authors use inequivalent definitions. One definition is that
a cardinal κ is called ** α-inaccessible**, for

The *α*-inaccessible cardinals can also be described as fixed points of functions which count the lower inaccessibles. For example, denote by *ψ*_{0}(*λ*) the *λ*^{th} inaccessible cardinal, then the fixed points of *ψ*_{0} are the 1-inaccessible cardinals. Then letting *ψ*_{β}(*λ*) be the *λ*^{th} *β*-inaccessible cardinal, the fixed points of *ψ*_{β} are the (*β*+1)-inaccessible cardinals (the values *ψ*_{β+1}(*λ*)). If *α* is a limit ordinal, an *α*-inaccessible is a fixed point of every *ψ*_{β} for *β* < *α* (the value *ψ*_{α}(*λ*) is the *λ*^{th} such cardinal). This process of taking fixed points of functions generating successively larger cardinals is commonly encountered in the study of large cardinal numbers.

The term **hyper-inaccessible** is ambiguous and has at least three incompatible meanings. Many authors use it to mean a regular limit of strongly inaccessible cardinals (1-inaccessible). Other authors use it to mean that κ is κ-inaccessible. (It can never be `κ`+1-inaccessible.) It is occasionally used to mean Mahlo cardinal.

The term ** α-hyper-inaccessible** is also ambiguous. Some authors use it to mean

Hyper-hyper-inaccessible cardinals and so on can be defined in similar ways, and as usual this term is ambiguous.

Using "weakly inaccessible" instead of "inaccessible", similar definitions can be made for "weakly *α*-inaccessible", "weakly hyper-inaccessible", and "weakly *α*-hyper-inaccessible".

Mahlo cardinals are inaccessible, hyper-inaccessible, hyper-hyper-inaccessible, ... and so on.

Firstly, a cardinal κ is inaccessible if and only if κ has the following reflection property: for all subsets *U* ⊂ *V*_{κ}, there exists *α* < *κ* such that is an elementary substructure of . (In fact, the set of such *α* is closed unbounded in κ.) Equivalently, κ is -indescribable for all *n* ≥ 0.

It is provable in ZF that ∞ satisfies a somewhat weaker reflection property, where the substructure (*V*_{α}, ∈, *U* ∩ *V*_{α}) is only required to be 'elementary' with respect to a finite set of formulas. Ultimately, the reason for this weakening is that whereas the model-theoretic satisfaction relation ⊧ can be defined, semantic truth itself (i.e. ) cannot, due to Tarski's theorem.

Secondly, under ZFC it can be shown that κ is inaccessible if and only if (*V*_{κ}, ∈) is a model of second order ZFC.

In this case, by the reflection property above, there exists *α* < *κ* such that (*V*_{α}, ∈) is a standard model of (first order) ZFC. Hence, the existence of an inaccessible cardinal is a stronger hypothesis than the existence of a standard model of ZFC.