There is a contradiction at the heart of our current understanding of individual and collective mobility patterns. On the one hand, a highly infuential body of literature on human mobility driven by analyses of massive empirical datasets fnds that human movements show no evidence of characteristic spatial scales. There, human mobility is described as scale free1–3. On the other hand, geographically, the concept of scale—referring to meaningful levels of description from individual buildings to neighbourhoods, cities, regions and countries—is central for the description of various aspects of human behaviour, such as socioeconomic interactions, or political and cultural dynamics4,5. Here we resolve this apparent paradox by showing that day-to-day human mobility does indeed contain meaningful scales, corresponding to spatial ‘containers’ that restrict mobility behaviour. The scale-free results arise from aggregating displacements across containers. We present a simple model—which given a person’s trajectory—infers their neighbourhood, city and so on, as well as the sizes of these geographical containers. We fnd that the containers—characterizing the trajectories of more than 700,000 individuals—do indeed have typical sizes. We show that our model is also able to generate highly realistic trajectories and provides a way to understand the diferences in mobility behaviour across countries, gender groups and urban–rural areas.