Rolling element bearing is a vital component in rotating machinery, such as a wind turbine (WT) system. By accurately monitoring its health condition, the faults can be detected at an early stage, providing sufficient lead time to perform maintenance and hence reducing accidents and economic losses. Bearing usually suffers from various wears and tears, which result in a gradual increase in clearance through its lifetime. Insufficient understanding of vibration characteristics under different clearances brings difficulties for bearing condition monitoring. Thus, this paper presents a nonlinear bearing vibration model with six degrees of freedom (DOF) to investigate the vibration characteristics under different radial clearances and load conditions. Then, a dedicated bearing test is established to verify the reasonability and effectiveness of the vibration model. Furthermore, a comprehensive simulation analysis is conducted to study the vibration characteristics over an extended range of the internal radial clearance and external load. Results show that the dynamic force on each ball presents an impulse whose magnitudes increases whereas the pulse width reduces with clearance increases. Ball pass frequency of outer race (BPFO) is the dominant modulation component and the frequency is in accordance with the number of dynamic force impulses. Two indicators, i.e., root mean square (RMS) value and spectral centroid, are proposed to indicate clearance changes. In general, they show an uptrend with the increase in clearance, which is in line with the dynamic force increasing with clearance, especially the spectral centroid of the low frequency band. However, it should be noted that the RMS value and spectral centroid exhibit a fluctuating behavior due to nonlinear vibration responses. For the first time, this study shows the details of vibration characteristics with clearance variations and provides a foundation for monitoring the bearing conditions before any obvious local defects on raceways.