We address the issue of the local structure in an epitaxial semiconductor thin film undergoing strain relaxation due to extended defects when the critical thickness for their introduction is exceeded. The nearest neighbor environment is probed by x-ray absorption fine structure spectroscopy. The particular system studied is a set of In0.25Ga0.75As films grown on InP(001) of increasing thickness; the thicknesses were chosen so as to obtain a varying degree of relaxation, ranging from pseudomorphic growth to completely relaxed state. The samples have been thoroughly characterized with complementary structural techniques and the residual strain is measured by x-ray diffraction. We find that the Ga–As bond length exhibits a linear decrease with decreasing residual strain. By comparing these results with previous studies on bond lengths in pseudomorphic InxGa1-xAs films as a function of concentration we conclude that the bond lengths have an identical behavior as a function of the mean residual strain independently from its elastic or plastic origin. This result is reproduced by an analytical model based on the transfer of the mean macroscopic deformation at a local level. The broadening of the bond length distribution induced by extended defects is also discussed, concluding that it is not experimentally dectable. © 1999 American Institute of Physics.