Did you know you can get a free credit report from three credit-reporting agencies every calendar year? However, your credit report is only one piece of the puzzle. You should keep a watchful eye on your credit score as well.
Here are three reasons your credit score matters:
Your credit score plays a role in how much interest you'll pay. When you apply for any type of loan (auto, home, personal, etc.), lenders use your credit score to determine whether you're a good risk. Even if you are eligible to receive a loan, a low credit score could cause you to pay higher interest rates — and more money — over time.
Credit scores are used to assess your value as a customer or employee. A low credit score could affect your life in a number of unexpected ways. For example, a low credit score could increase your insurance premiums, disqualify you from renting an apartment or house or even cost you your dream job.
Keeping a careful eye on your credit score can help you spot fraud. A sudden drop in your credit score could mean trouble. Closely monitoring your credit score can help you spot fraudulent activity on your accounts.
A credit report highlights your credit history, including your borrowing and repayment habits. Three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — compile these reports. (A fourth, smaller credit bureau named Innovis also collects credit information about you.) Your credit score, on the other hand, isn't a record at all, but rather a three-digit indicator of your overall credit health. While your credit score doesn't include all the juicy details reflected on your report, it says all lenders want to know about how much of a risk you are as a consumer.
Credit Scores by the Numbers
Sources: FTC, Fair Isaac Corp., American Bankers Association
Free Credit Score Reviews
You can access a free copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com each year. If you want to monitor your FICO score specifically, you also have the option to pay for updates from MyFICO.com. Several companies also offer "free credit scores" to consumers who sign up for their services.
Services that provide free credit scores use information from your credit report to estimate your creditworthiness. While these estimated credit scores usually are fairly indicative of your actual credit health, they are for informational purposes only. In addition to a free credit score, many of these services also provide daily credit monitoring, including email updates. The following websites offer free credit scores and a slew of additional perks:
Credit.com pulls information from your Experian credit report to come up with an estimated credit score. It uses the VantageScore 3.0 model, which rates credit health on a scale between 300 and 850. After signing up for the free service, you will receive an update of your estimated credit score every 30 days. You'll also receive a "credit report card" that provides a summary of your performance in the five key categories reflected in your credit report, along with a letter grade in each.
Credit Karma provides a subscriber with a free credit score and a credit report card based on the VantageScore 3.0 model developed by the Big Three credit-reporting agencies. After subscribing to this service, you'll see this number is updated weekly, along with your free "credit report card." In addition to these excellent perks, Credit Karma provides a number of free tools that can help you improve your score over time.
As part of your free subscription to CreditSesame.com, you'll receive your updated VantageScore 3.0 score each month, with data from TransUnion, as well as free credit monitoring to help you protect your identity as well. Also included with a subscription is access to free tool that provides personalized savings advice.
Although known as a lender and not necessarily a credit-reporting service, Lending Tree offers free credit scores to consumers who sign up for its free subscription service. Once you subscribe, Lending Tree will provide you with a weekly VantageScore 3.0 credit score update, drawn from data provided by TransUnion.
Using the VantageScore 3.0 model and data from your TransUnion report as its basis, myBankrate also provides free credit scores and a free monthly credit report to those who subscribe. Users will receive weekly updates with their free memberships, as well as access to a variety of tools that can help them monitor and improve their credit scores over time.
This Quicken Loans service allows you to make a soft inquiry on your credit report, which means you won't have any dings to your credit score. Once you get your report, QL Credit offers tailored suggestions on how you can improve your credit score.
Quizzle is another consumer-focused service that offers free credit scores for members of their subscription service. But unlike some of the other services listed, Quizzle's free credit score is based on information from two different credit-reporting bureaus — Equifax and Experian. This is beneficial for consumers, since it's fairly common for some information to appear in one bureau's report but in another's. However, it's important to note that Quizzle only updates this information every six months.
WalletHub is another website that offers free credit scores and financial tools for consumers. If you sign up for a free basic membership, you'll receive your VantageScore 3.0 score, with data reported by TransUnion, along with a free TransUnion credit report. WalletHub monitors and updates your credit score on a daily basis.
Until 2015, contracts with the three major credit-reporting bureaus prohibited credit counselors from sharing FICO scores with their customers. Under a new FICO policy effective in 2015, however, credit-counseling organizations now are allowed to share actual FICO scores and credit reports from all three major bureaus with their clients.
If you applied for a loan and were denied, the lender is required by law to show you your credit score as well as which credit-reporting agency — Equifax, Experian or TransUnion — provided the report that formed the basis of that score. If you're not satisfied, you can also request to see a copy of your credit report at no charge.
Free Credit Scores with a Catch
Several services, including the major credit bureaus, offer free credit scores to new users who agree to enroll in premium services on trial basis. These free introductory offers typically only last for a few days and often require you to enter payment information up front. When the introductory period expires, you'll be charged automatically and enrolled in the premium service unless you cancel.
Here are a few services that encourage consumers to sign up for credit-monitoring services that include credit scores.
Equifax does not offer a free look at its premium credit-score reporting and monitoring service. Instead, a member pays $15.95 to receive his or her credit score based on the agency's own scoring system. A paying member also receives an Equifax credit report, while this can be obtained for free once per year through AnnualCreditReport.com.
FreeCreditScore.com lets users see their Experian Plus scores for free. However, this is not the actual FICO score used by most lenders. Meanwhile, Experian offers a seven-day trial membership to its premium program, which grants you access to your actual FICO score and Experian credit report for free. Once the trial period ends, you'll be charged $29.95 per month for its credit-monitoring services.
TransUnion offers a slightly different service from those offered by Equifax and Experian. Although it does not offer a "free look" at its premium services, TransUnion does offer a seven-day trial membership. During this time, you'll pay $1 to obtain access to your VantageScore and TransUnion credit report. (Note that TransUnion uses VantageScores and not FICO scores.) Unless you cancel, you'll automatically be enrolled in its premium service, which costs $17.95 per month.
Other Non-Free Credit-Score Providers
If you are interested in premium credit score and credit-monitoring services, there numerous services to choose from. This includes Fair Isaac's myFICO.com, which allows users access to their actual FICO scores. Most of these websites provide immediate access to credit scores via a trial period. You may cancel before the free trial period expires (usually one to two weeks). If you don't, you'll automatically be enrolled in the premium service and charged a monthly fee.
Credit Score vs. Credit Report vs. FICO Score
Although "credit report," "credit score" and "FICO score" often are used interchangeably, there are important differences that set these terms apart.
A credit report is a detailed outline of your credit history over the past seven to ten years. Credit reports are gathered and compiled by the three major credit-reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Credit reports typically include information about your lenders in addition to the amount of money you owe, how many accounts are active, payment histories, credit inquiries and any positive or negative marks against each account.
Not all lenders report to all three agencies. Thus, certain accounts and marks may appear on one report but not others. If it's not obvious already, this is why it's important to monitor your credit reports from all three credit bureaus.
"Credit score" is a generic term used to describe the three-digit number that represents your credit health. Credit scores are mostly based on information provided in your credit reports, although there are outside influences that play a role as well. The higher the number, the less credit risk you present to a lender and vice versa. In addition to your credit history, your credit score takes factors such as credit utilization, the length of credit history and your credit mix into account. There are several popular credit-scoring methods out there, including FICO and VantageScore.
When most people say "credit score," what they really mean is "FICO score." A FICO score is released by the Fair Isaac Corp. (from which FICO gets its name). FICO scores are calculated based entirely on data contained in an individual's credit report. However, the FICO score is typically considered most important because it is the score used by banks and lenders when considering loan applications.
Currently, there are several versions of FICO available (FICO 8, FICO 9 and earlier versions), as well as some that include industry-specific numbers. All in all, there are about 50 FICO score varieties. Because each credit-reporting agency may have collected slightly different information about you, your FICO score may vary depending on which credit report and version of FICO was used to determine your score.
Many Brands of Credit Scores
As you can see in the image above, using the term "credit score" is a lot like using the term "sedan." Subaru, for example, makes sedans, but not every sedan is a Subaru. In the same way, credit scores come in many shapes and sizes. Thus, a FICO score is a type of credit score, but a credit score is not necessarily a FICO score. Even more specifically, a FICO 9 score accessed by a mortgage lender may differ from a FICO 8 score used in considering a car loan.
Average FICO Score Over the Last 10 Years
Glossary: Free Credit-Score Terms You Need to Know
Application scoring, also known as credit scoring, is a mathematical technique used to objectively determine a person's creditworthiness. Using a person's actual credit data and history, application scoring applies a number to each applicant that represents his or her creditworthiness. This number is usually referred to as a credit score.
A consumer credit-reporting agency (CRA) is an organization that collects and reports data on individual borrowers. There are three major CRAs — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — and a smaller fourth agency called Innovis. CRAs are also called credit bureaus.
See "Consumer credit-reporting agency (CRA)."
An individual's credit history refers to how that individual has repaid past debt obligations. This information typically is pulled from a person's consumer-credit file and may be used in the credit-scoring process.
Credit risk refers to how likely it is that a borrower will repay debt obligations.
A default is a term used to describe an individual's failure to repay a debt obligation on time. Accounts currently in default may not have been paid for several months or years.
One of the three major consumer credit-reporting agencies.
The FCRA is a federal law enacted in 1970 that prohibits credit-reporting agencies from intentionally or unintentionally including inaccurate information in a consumer's credit report. The FCRA is intended to promote accuracy, fairness and privacy in credit reporting.
A FICO score is a type of score meant to be an objective measure of a consumer's credit risk. This score is based entirely on data contained in an individual's credit report and is widely used by lenders in making any major lending decisions.
Innovis is a consumer credit-reporting agency based in Columbus, Ohio. Innovis obtains credit information from some (but not all) lenders. Innovis is not forthcoming about the consumer information it gathers, but it has a reputation for focusing on mortgage payments.
See "credit score."
An inquiry made on your credit report by a company or individual, usually in conjunction with a background check. Soft pulls do not affect your credit score.
A trial period is an introductory offer allowing a new customer to obtain access to certain premium services at a reduced price for a limited time. In the case of most credit-monitoring services, trial periods generally last one to two weeks.
A consumer credit file is a record containing information about the borrowing and repayment habits of an individual consumer. Each CRA is independent and keeps separate credit files on consumers.
Credit is the extension of good faith by a lender (or merchant) that allows a borrower to obtain goods and/or financial resources under the premise that the borrower will pay for them at a later date.
This is a type of credit score based entirely on data provided by a consumer-credit agency. This score helps a lender gauge the level of risk presented by an individual borrower at a particular moment in time.
A CRA's report containing information about a consumer's relationship with credit, using data gathered from creditors, such as credit-card issuers, mortgage lenders, auto-finance companies and public sources. A credit report reflects open accounts; the amount of credit extended; repayment history; negative public information such as bankruptcies, foreclosures and liens; and other information.
A number assigned to an individual that is meant to represent that person's creditworthiness. Most credit-score models range from 300 to 850. The higher the score, the lower a credit risk the consumer is.
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, or ECOA, is a federal law enacted in 1974 that prohibits lenders from denying credit to a borrower on the basis of age, race, sex, color, religion, national origin or marital status.
One of the three major consumer credit-reporting agencies.
Fair Isaac Corp. is a private software corporation that was founded in 1954 and is based in San Jose, California. The company collects consumer credit data, uses it to determine an individual's FICO score and sells this score to lenders to help them determine the credit risk presented by a potential borrower.
An inquiry made on your credit report by a financial institution prior to making a lending decision. Because this signals that you are preparing to borrow money, a hard pull can decrease your credit score.
A request by an authorized person for access to an individual's credit report.
The statistical formula commonly used to determine a credit score.
One of the three major consumer credit-reporting agencies.
A credit score co-developed by the three major CRAs and intended to compete with FICO. Most lenders rely on FICO, so as a result, VantageScores typically are used for educational purposes.