The performance of many silicon devices is limited by electronic recombination losses at the crystalline silicon (c-Si) surface. A proper surface passivation scheme is needed to allow minimizing these losses. The surface passivation properties of amorphous hydrogenated silicon (a-Si:H) on monocrystalline Si wafers are investigated here. We introduce a simple model for the description of the surface recombination mechanism based on recombination through amphoteric defects, i.e. dangling bonds, already established for bulk a-Si:H. In this model, the injection-dependent recombination at the a-Si:H/c-Si interface is governed by the density and the average state of charge of the amphoteric recombination centers. We show that with our surface recombination model, we can discriminate between the respective contribution of the two main mechanisms leading to improved surface passivation, which is achieved by (a) the minimization of the density of recombination centers and (b) the strong reduction of the density of one carrier type near the interface by field effect. We can thereafter reproduce the behaviors experimentally observed for the dependence of the surface recombination on the injection level on different wafers, i.e., of both p and n doping type as well as intrinsic. Finally, we are able to exploit the good surface passivation properties of our a-Si:H layers by fabricating flat heterojunction solar cells with open-circuit voltages exceeding 700 mV. © 2007 The American Physical Society.