This paper explores the motivations and meanings of international student mobility. Central to the discussion are the results of a large questionnaire survey and associated in-depth interviews with UK students enrolled in universities in six countries from around the world. The results suggest, first, that several different dimensions of social and cultural capital are accrued through study abroad. It is argued that the search for ‘world class’ education has taken on new significance. Second, the paper argues that analysis of student mobility should not be confined to a framework that separates study abroad from the wider life-course aspirations of students. It is argued that these insights go beyond existing theorisations of international student mobility to incorporate recognition of diverse approaches to difference within cultures of mobility, including class reproduction of distinction, broader notions of distinction within the life-plans of individual students, and how ‘reputations’ associated with educational destinations are structured by individuals, institutions and states in a global higher education system that produces differentially mediated geographies of international student mobility.