High-quality GaN epilayers were grown on Si (1 1 1) substrates by molecular beam epitaxy using a new growth process sequence which involved a substrate nitridation at low temperatures, annealing at high temperatures, followed by nitridation at high temperatures, deposition of a low-temperature buffer layer, and a high-temperature overgrowth. The material quality of the GaN films was also investigated as a function of nitridation time and temperature. Crystallinity and surface roughness of GaN was found to improve when the Si substrate was treated under the new growth process sequence. Micro-Raman and photoluminescence (PL) measurement results indicate that the GaN film grown by the new process sequence has less tensile stress and optically good. The surface and interface structures of an ultra thin silicon nitride film grown on the Si surface are investigated by core-level photoelectron spectroscopy and it clearly indicates that the quality of silicon nitride notably affects the properties of GaN growth. © 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.