Previous studies have shown that water retention curve (WRC) and the hydraulic conductivity vary because of changes of the void ratio or porosity of soil. However, limited documents pointed out the change of hydraulic properties of soil when compacted to different porosities while considering both of the drying and wetting processes of the WRC. This information is sometimes necessary for research like finger flow analysis or the occurrence of wetting and drying cycles as what would be seen in the field. Therefore, this study aims to examine the change of WRC characteristics with varied porosity considering both of the drying and wetting path in WRC by conducting a sand box experiment. Results show that the same type of sand compacted to various porosities have different hydraulic parameters. Hydraulic conductivities generally decrease with reduced porosities; shape parameter α of the van Genuchten equation (1980) linearly decreases with declining porosity and shape parameter n in a reversal manner for the sands of interest whether in the drying process or wetting process. The unsaturated properties of sand are further characterized by inspecting the variations of moisture content, matric suction and vertical displacement of soil body subject to periodic changes of the water level by another sand box experiment. The outcomes suggest that the saturated water content and residual water content are changing during the wetting–drying process, which can be an implication of the changed properties of WRC. The characteristics of volumetric deformation might be varied as well because of the observation of the dissimilar patterns of the changing vertical displacements among each wetting–drying process. Infiltration patterns of the sands also are identified through numerical modelling by introducing a constant infiltration flux from the surface followed by a no-influx condition. Results indicate that less water accumulates in the sand near the surface for the sand compacted to higher porosity, but water can move deeper. Hydraulic conductivity is found as the prime factor dominating the evolvement of wetting fronts. However, shape parameters of water retention curves also affect the infiltration pattern to some extent. In addition, different sands with similar porosities can have quite different infiltrating characteristics. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.