The airlift external circulation membrane bioreactor (AEC-MBR) is a new MBR consisting of a separated aeration tank and membrane tank with circulating pipes fixed between the two tanks. The circulating pipe is called a H circulating pipe (HCP) because of its shape. With the complex configuration, it was difficult but necessary to master the AEC-MBR's hydraulic characteristics. In this paper, simulation and optimization of the AEC-MBR was performed using computational fluid dynamics. The distance from diffusers to membrane modules, i.e. the height of gas–liquid mixing zone (hm), and its effect on velocity distribution at membrane surfaces were studied. Additionally, the role of HCP and the effect of HCP's diameter on circulation were simulated and analyzed. The results showed that non-uniformity of cross-flow velocity existed in the flat-plate membrane modules, and the problem could be alleviated by increasing hm to an optimum range (hm/B ≥ 0.55; B is total static depth). Also, the low velocity in the boundary layer on the membrane surface was another reason for membrane fouling. The results also suggested that HCP was necessary and it had an optimum diameter to make circulation effective in the AEC-MBR.