How to Read Your Credit Report (Plus When and Where to Get It)

ByMoneyGeek Team

Updated: March 21, 2024

ByMoneyGeek Team

Updated: March 21, 2024

Advertising & Editorial Disclosure

When to Order Your Credit Report

Each credit reporting agency (CRA) has a separate credit report for you. You're entitled to one free credit report from each agency each year. You can get your free credit reports by visiting

If you've already used your free credit report and need to view an updated report from a credit bureau, you can order your credit report directly from Experian, TransUnion or Equifax. Here are a few ways you may want to use your free credit reports.

Routine Check

Since you can get three free credit reports per year, you can space them throughout the year to monitor for unusual activity. An example would be pulling a report on January 1st, May 1st and September 1st of each year.

Buying or Refinancing a House

If you're buying or refinancing a house, you'll want to make sure your credit reports are accurate at all three agencies before you apply for a mortgage. You'll want to pull the reports a couple months in advance so you can dispute any errors.

Buying a Car

Similar to buying a home, you'll want to check all three of your credit reports before applying for a car loan. While a lender may not check all three agencies for a car loan, you don't know which agency they will check. Examine your reports a couple months in advance, if possible, so you have time to dispute any errors.

Starting the School Year

The start of the school year can be a great annual reminder to check your credit report. If you'll be taking out private student loans, it's definitely a good time for a credit check-up.

≫ More: Best Student Credit Cards
Refinancing Your Debt

Refinancing your debt gives you a great opportunity to save money, especially if your credit has improved. Check your reports in advance to make sure there are no errors that could hurt your credit score before applying to obtain the best interest rate possible.

Applying for a Job

While employers can't access your credit score when you apply for a job, they can request permission to access your credit report. Check all three of your reports for errors before giving permission to make sure the reports are free of errors that could cost you a job offer.

The Big 3: Credit Reporting Agencies

It's important to realize that the credit reports from each of the credit reporting agencies may be different. Creditors may only send information to one or two of the three agencies, so some reports may be incomplete. Additionally, one agency may obtain inaccurate information and list it on your report. That uncertainty means you should check all three credit reports to make sure they're all accurate before taking out a loan for a major purchase. There are slight differences between the credit agencies, according to Credit Sesame. Here are some examples:

    business icon


    TransUnion credit reports list more detailed information about your employment history than the other credit agencies. If they have access to the data, they'll list your hire date and your current position within the company. Other agencies just list the names of your employers.

    business icon


    Your Equifax report will state why closed accounts were shut down while the other agencies' reports may not.

    business icon


    Experian attempts to list all rent payments on their credit reports, not just late payments like the other two agencies. Of course, Experian can only include this data if your landlord shares your rental information with their credit agency.

How to Read your Annual Credit Report

Credit reports can look confusing at first glance. However, they're not so bad once you know how to read them. Each credit reporting agency will have a slightly different format, but they all contain the same basic information.

There are four major sections in a consumer credit report. You should read each section carefully and verify all of the reported information.

Personal Information

The first section lists your personal information, including your name, address and social security number. It could also include your current and previous employers.

Public Records

The second section lists public records of any financial legal actions, such as bankruptcies, judgments and tax liens.

Credit Accounts

The third section lists all of your credit accounts. There may be three subsections: accounts that are open in good standing, negative accounts and closed accounts. Each account will list such information as your payment history, date opened, credit limit, account number and other relevant information.

Inquiries on Your Credit Report

The final section details the inquiries on your credit report. This section reports when businesses inquire about your credit. There are two subsections to display credit inquiries that are shown to everyone, usually known as hard inquiries, and credit inquiries that are only shown to you, known as soft inquiries.

Annual Credit Report FAQ's

Why has my credit score changed?
Why is my score different among CRA's?
Are my spouse's finances reflected on my credit report?

Annual Credit Report Mini-Glossary

  • BEACON Score
    a credit score generated by Equifax and used by some lenders to make decisions on whether or not to make a loan to an individual applying for credit.

  • Credit summary
    a way of showing your detailed credit information in a combined format, such as how many accounts have current or past due payments.

  • Derogatory Items
    a negative item on your credit report, usually associated with a late payment or failure to pay.

  • ECOA
    Equal Credit Opportunity Act - a law that makes it illegal for creditors to discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age or marital status or receipt of income from public assistance programs.

  • FICO Score
    a widely recognized credit scoring model developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation. There are many different FICO scores used in varied situations by different users.

  • Firm
    another name for the company or business that issued you a credit account (tradeline).

  • High Credit (Hicr)
    the highest amount owed on a debt during the time period under question.

  • Inquiry Alert
    an alert that notifies you a business has pulled your credit report and caused an inquiry on your file.

  • Inquiries
    a notification that your credit has been checked by a business. Inquiries are listed on your credit report.

  • Installment Accounts
    a credit account that requires a fixed payment amount to be paid for a fixed number of payments, such as a car loan.

  • Limit
    the maximum amount of debt allowed to be taken out on a particular account.

  • Mortgages
    a secured loan for which a property, such as a single family home, is used as collateral until the debt is repaid.

  • OFAC Alert
    an Office of Foreign Assets Control alert that shows that your name is the same as someone on the Treasury Department's Specially Designated Nationals list.

  • Old Trade
    indicates the age of the oldest account on your credit report.

  • Open accounts
    an account that is still active on your credit report and has not been closed, such as a car loan or credit card.

  • Past Due (P/Due)
    a credit account status for accounts where payments were not made on time based on the credit agreement.

  • Safescan Alerts
    an alert to warn an individual of potential fraud indicators, such as a person reported to be dead or a social security number being used with more than one name.

  • Revolving Accounts
    a credit account that does not require the borrower to pay in full each month.

  • Tradelines
    an industry term to describe your credit accounts as listed on your credit report.

About MoneyGeek Team

MoneyGeek Team headshot

The MoneyGeek editorial team has decades of combined experience in writing and publishing information about how people should manage money and credit. Our editors have worked with numerous publications including The Washington Post, The Daily Business Review, HealthDay and Time, Inc., and have won numerous journalism awards. Our talented team of contributing writers includes mortgage experts, veteran financial reporters and award-winning journalists. Learn more about the MoneyGeek team.

    *Rates, fees or bonuses may vary or include specific stipulations. The content on this page is accurate as of the posting/last updated date; however, some of the offers mentioned may have expired. We recommend visiting the card issuer’s website for the most up-to-date information available.
    Editorial Disclosure: Opinions, reviews, analyses and recommendations are the author’s alone and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. Learn more about our editorial policies and expert editorial team.
    Advertiser Disclosure: MoneyGeek has partnered with and for our coverage of credit card products. MoneyGeek, CardRatings and may receive a commission from card issuers. To ensure thorough comparisons and reviews, MoneyGeek features products from both paid partners and unaffiliated card issuers that are not paid partners.