Background Re-irradiation (re-RT) has the active effect of relieving clinical symptoms and prolonging the survival of patients with recurrent esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC). However, the optimal re-RT dose is still uncertain. Here, we analyzed the prognostic factors associated with survival and explored the optimal re-RT dose for patients with recurrent ESCC following definitive radiotherapy. Patients and methods The data of 47 patients with recurrent ESCC who were retreated between 2010 and 2014 were retrospectively analyzed. All patients received a radiation dose > 50 Gy during the primary treatment. The median time to recurrence after primary radiotherapy was 26 months (range 6-120 months). All patients had in-field recurrence in the esophagus. Recurrence within the local site was observed in 37 patients (78.7%), and recurrence in both the local site and regional nodes were observed in 10 patients (21.3%). All patients received 3D conformal re-RT with a median dose of 58 Gy (range 26-64 Gy). Chemotherapy was sequentially used in 27.7% of the patients. Survival curves were constructed according to the Kaplan-Meier method and were compared by log-rank tests. The factors predictive of survival were identified with univariate and multivariate analyses. Results Dysphagia relief after re-RT was achieved in 20 of the 35 symptomatic patients (57.1%). The median survival time (MST) of all patients was 17 months, and the 1-, 2-, 3- and 5-year overall survival (OS) rates were 72.3, 25.5, 17.0 and 2.1%, respectively. In the univariate analysis, an Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group Performance Status (ECOG-PS) of 0-1 (P = 0.014), recurrence at the local site (P = 0.048), time to recurrence >= 24 months (P = 0.006) and re-RT dose >= 50 Gy (P < 0.001) were associated with favorable OS. In the multivariate analysis, only re-RT dose was an independent factor for OS (P = 0.007). Severe complications were observed in 7 patients, two of whom received a re-RT dose > 60 Gy. Conclusion Our results demonstrated that patients with recurrent ESCC following definitive radiotherapy had unfavorable OS. Re-RT could be considered a feasible and effective treatment modality. A re-RT dose > 50 Gy could improve the survival outcomes, and a dose > 60 Gy should be administered with caution due to the risk of severe complications.