A theory for the description of optical excitation and the subsequent phonon-induced relaxation dynamics of nonequilibrium electrons at semiconductor surfaces is presented. In the first part, the fundamental dynamical equations for electronic occupations and polarisations are derived using density matrix formalism (DMT) for a surface-bulk system including the interaction of electrons with the optical field and electron–phonon interactions. The matrix elements entering these equations are either determined empirically or by density functional theory (DFT) calculations. In the subsequent parts of the paper, the dynamics at two specific semiconductor surfaces are discussed in detail. The electron relaxation dynamics underlying a time-resolved two photon photoemission experiment at an InP surface is investigated in the limit of a parabolic four band model. Moreover, the electron relaxation dynamics at a Si(100) surface is analysed. Here, the coupling parameters and the band structure are obtained from an DFT calculations.