A polyacrylonitrile-based carbon fiber was electrochemically oxidized in an aqueous ammonium bicarbonate solution with current density of up to 2.76 A/m2 at room temperature. X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy revealed that the oxygen content increased with increasing current density before approaching saturation. The increase can be divided into two regions, the rapid increase region (0–1.78 A/m2) and a plateau region (1.78–2.76 A/m2). The surface chemistry analysis showed that the interlaminar shear strength (ILSS) value of the carbon fiber/epoxy composite could be improved by 24.7%. The carbon structure was examined using Raman spectroscopy in terms of order/disorder in the graphite structure and the results indicated that the relative percentage of graphite carbon in the form of sp2 hybridization increased above a current density of 1.39 A/m2. The increasing non-polar graphite carbon on the carbon fiber surface decreased the surface energy. As a result, both the surface free energy () and its polar component () decreased when current density increased above 1.78 A/m2. The ILSS value had no direct relationship with the nature and surface density of the oxygen-containing functional groups nor with the carbon structure. It is the surface free energy (), especially the polar component (), which played a critical role in affecting the interfacial adhesion of carbon fiber/epoxy composites. The ILSS value changed with increasing current density and could be divided into three distinct regions, as chemical interaction region (I), anchor force region (II) and matrix damage region (III). Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.