In a recent letter [Lauinger etal, Appl. Phys. Lett. 68, 1232 (1996)] we have shown that record low effective surface recombination velocities Seff of 4 cm/s have been obtained at ISFH on low-resistivity (1 Ω cm) p-type crystalline silicon using microwave-excited remote plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (RPECVD) of silicon nitride at low temperature (300–400 °C). As an important application, this technique allows a simple fabrication of rear-passivated high-efficiency silicon solar cells with monofacial or bifacial sensitivity. In this work, we present details of the required optimization of the PECVD parameters and a characterization of the resulting silicon nitride films. All deposition parameters are shown to strongly affect Seff as well as the stability of the films against the ultraviolet (UV) photons of terrestrial sunlight. A clear correlation between Seff and the film stoichiometry is observed, allowing a simple control and even a rough optimization of the surface passivation quality by measurements of the refractive index of the films. An optimum passivation and UV stability is obtained for silicon-rich silicon nitride films with a refractive index greater than 2.3. © 1998 American Vacuum Society.