Rainfall infiltration can cause a dramatic decrease of suction in unsaturated soils and, consequently, of shear strength, triggering various instability phenomena, such as the slip of steep surface soil layers. Swelling of cracked soils and capillary barrier effects, induced by fine-grained soils overlying a more permeable material, can also affect water flow through this type of soil systems. In the past, few studies on infiltration and rainfall-induced landslides considered the simultaneous effects of surface cracks, swelling materials, and/or the capillary barrier phenomenon. To this purpose, this paper presents the results obtained by a dual-permeability model, which simulates water flow through a fractured swelling soil overlying a more permeable soil and focusing on the influence of these phenomena on triggering of landslides. Numerical results show that for high-intensity precipitations, flow through fractures quickly reaches significant depths and the capillary barrier is broken, while soil swelling leads to a uniform narrowing of cracks. On the other hand, for low-intensity precipitations, fracture flow and swelling are limited only to the first 30-50 cm of the topsoil, while cracks almost completely closed. Evaluations of the slope stability show that prolonged low-intensity rainfalls might be more dangerous than short high-intensity rains in triggering surface landslides. © 2013 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.