RNA polymerase II (pol II) is required for the transcription of all protein-coding genes and as such represents a major enzyme whose activity is tightly regulated. Transcriptional initiation therefore requires numerous general transcriptional factors and cofactors that associate with pol II at the core promoter to form a pre-initiation complex. Transcription factor IIA (TFIIA) is a general cofactor that binds TFIID and stabilizes the TFIID–DNA complex during transcription initiation. Previous studies showed that TFIIA can make contact with the DNA sequence upstream or downstream of the TATA box, and that the region bound by TFIIA could overlap with the elements recognized by another factor, TFIIB, at adenovirus major late core promoter. Whether core promoters contain a DNA motif recognized by TFIIA remains unknown. Here we have identified a core promoter element upstream of the TATA box that is recognized by TFIIA. A search of the human promoter database revealed that many natural promoters contain a TFIIA recognition element (IIARE). We show that the IIARE enhances TFIIA-promoter binding and enhances the activity of TATA-containing promoters, but represses or activates promoters that lack a TATA box. Chromatin immunoprecipitation assays revealed that the IIARE activates transcription by increasing the recruitment of pol II, TFIIA, TAF4, and P300 at TATA-dependent promoters. These findings extend our understanding of the role of TFIIA in transcription, and provide new insights into the regulatory mechanism of core promoter elements in gene transcription by pol II.