Research on inequality in higher education (HE) is often dominated by class-based assumptions about traditional and non-traditional students. This binary distinction emphasising students’ socio-economic status tends to oversimply the complexity of educational inequality, neglecting crucial factors which affect the perception of social position. Therefore, this study aims to investigate the understanding of inequalities in HE with new data on the meaning of locality, using evidence from comparative studies of institutions. Locality is interpreted as an inclusive concept capturing place identity as well as local attachments based on language, culture and the natural environment. The qualitative and quantitative data were collected from 192 participants in three distinctly different HE institutions, which were deliberately selected according to their socio-economic, cultural, and institutional status. This mixed methods research confirms the importance of different types of belonging at institutional, local and national levels, and their different effects on student groups. The study captures to what extent geographical mobility is associated with social class, by examining students’ sense of belonging and their interpretation of locality in universities across Wales. It challenges the notion of disadvantaged background, and poses a critical question about cultural and geographical familiarity. This study therefore enriches the current debates about the impact of social inequality alongside social class on students’ belonging, success and retention in HE.