Bare unpassivated GaAs nanowires feature relatively high electron mobilities (400–2100 cm2 V−1 s−1) and ultrashort charge carrier lifetimes (1–5 ps) at room temperature. These two properties are highly desirable for high speed optoelectronic devices, including photoreceivers, modulators and switches operating at microwave and terahertz frequencies. When engineering these GaAs nanowire-based devices, it is important to have a quantitative understanding of how the charge carrier mobility and lifetime can be tuned. Here we use optical-pump–terahertz-probe spectroscopy to quantify how mobility and lifetime depend on the nanowire surfaces and on carrier density in unpassivated GaAs nanowires. We also present two alternative frameworks for the analysis of nanowire photoconductivity: one based on plasmon resonance and the other based on Maxwell–Garnett effective medium theory with the nanowires modelled as prolate ellipsoids. We find the electron mobility decreases significantly with decreasing nanowire diameter, as charge carriers experience increased scattering at nanowire surfaces. Reducing the diameter from 50 nm to 30 nm degrades the electron mobility by up to 47%. Photoconductivity dynamics were dominated by trapping at saturable states existing at the nanowire surface, and the trapping rate was highest for the nanowires of narrowest diameter. The maximum surface recombination velocity, which occurs in the limit of all traps being empty, was calculated as 1.3 × 106 cm s−1. We note that when selecting the optimum nanowire diameter for an ultrafast device, there is a trade-off between achieving a short lifetime and a high carrier mobility. To achieve high speed GaAs nanowire devices featuring the highest charge carrier mobilities and shortest lifetimes, we recommend operating the devices at low charge carrier densities.