The increase in jobs, mostly in the retail area, was the largest since November 2000, according to the Labor Department report. The overall rate dropped by 0.3 percentage point from the 6 percent rate in December that matched an 8-year high.
Analysts had expected the unemployment rate to hold steady at 6 percent for a third straight month.
The increase in new jobs was concentrated in retail stores, restaurants and bars last month, which added 101,000 new positions. Employment in construction rose by 21,000 in January.