The Rossby wave instability (RWI) is a promising mechanism for producing large-scale vortices in protoplanetary discs. The instability operates around a density bump in the disc, and the resulting vortices may facilitate planetesimal formation and angular momentum transfer in the disc dead zone. Most previous works on the RWI deal with 2D (height-integrated) discs. However, vortices in 3D may have different dynamical behaviours from those in 2D. Recent numerical simulations of the RWI in 3D global discs by Meheut et al. have revealed intriguing vertical structure of the vortices, including appreciable vertical velocities. In this paper we present a linear analysis of the RWI, in 3D global models of isothermal discs. We calculate the growth rates of the Rossby modes (of various azimuthal wave numbers m= 2–6) trapped around the fiducial density bump and carry out 3D numerical simulations to compare with our linear results. We show that the 3D RWI growth rates are only slightly smaller than the 2D growth rates, and the velocity structures seen in the numerical simulations during the linear phase are in agreement with the velocity eigenfunctions obtained in our linear calculations. This numerical benchmark shows that numerical simulations can accurately describe the instability. The angular momentum transfer rate associated with Rossby vortices is also studied.