The blaze at the 36-story Marco Polo condominium complex sent thick black smoke pouring over the city, a month to the day after a deadly high-rise fire in London.
Firefighters sprayed water onto the flames from nearby balconies and brought them under control at about 6:30 p.m. local time (0430 GMT Saturday), fours hours after the fire began, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell told reporters.
"You could feel the heat, and I'm several floors away and you could feel the heat," resident Ron Chiarottino told Khon2, a local Fox affiliate.
"The smoke just, when you hear of people say the smoke just overwhelmed me, I know just what they're talking about now."
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper said a mother and her son were among the three people who perished on the 26th floor, where the fire started. At least 12 other people were injured, it added.
The blaze quickly spread to the two floors above, the newspaper said. There were no immediate reports on what caused it.
Images posted online showed orange flames raging on several floors and debris falling from windows.
"We were all trying to help as much as we could ... but there was a fire and you could see it spreading," said 72-year-old resident Karen Hastings, who was in the building when the fire broke out.
Fire Chief Manuel Neves told reporters that the building did not have a sprinkler system. More than 100 firefighters tackled the fire and officers were conducting a room-by-room search, a task that could take several hours, he said.
The building was constructed in 1971, before the city began requiring sprinkler systems, the Star-Advertiser newspaper said.
City officials told the paper that if the building had had a sprinkler system, the fire would have been contained to the original unit.
One firefighter and four residents were taken to hospital while eight other residents were treated at the scene, the Star-Advertiser said.
Volunteers were looking after residents at a nearby park, the Hawaii Red Cross said on Twitter.
The fire forced the closure of a major road in front of the condominium complex, the Honolulu police department said on Twitter.
In London, at least 80 people were killed when a fire gutted the 24-story Grenfell Tower block on June 14. That building also did not have a sprinkler system.
(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Andrew Heavens)
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)