By Sarah Seville, Spencer Watson, and Valerie Ploumpis
Unless you’re concerned about your credit or are relatively credit-savvy, there’s a good chance that you rarely think about checking your credit. 23% of people in the U.S. said that they never check their credit score.
Being unaware, though, can be costly because it means that many people have no idea there is a problem with their credit file until errors have created obstacles in their financial life. According to the Federal Trade Commission, 1 in 5 consumers had verified errors in their reports, and 1 in 20 had an error so serious that it would cause them to be denied or to pay more for credit
Regularly checking your credit report and score and addressing errors is good financial hygiene. You should do so before you get denied a loan or fail a credit check.
Getting Your Credit Report
Credit reports can only be accessed directly from the agencies that keep those credit files – though partial credit reports and credit scores can also be accessed through other third parties, such as your credit union, bank, or other third-party websites.
To view your credit report from the credit bureaus, you can either get your report from each bureau for free once each year, or if you have already used your free report, you can also obtain a report directly from the bureau itself.
Direct from the Credit Bureaus – Annually
The Fair Credit Reporting Act guarantees consumers can access a free copy of their credit report once every 12 months from each of the three major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Also, they are voluntarily offering free weekly access to credit reports through the end of 2023.
You can request a copy of your report from all three credit bureaus at once, or you can also request them one at a time, so you can check them for mistakes or errors. This can be done at AnnualCreditReport.com, by calling 1-877-322-8228, or by mail (this CFPB webpage has addresses).
To get your free credit reports, you will be asked to provide some personal information about yourself and also to answer some questions about information on your credit report, such as previous loans or addresses.
If you find an error with your credit report, you can file a dispute with the credit bureau that has made a mistake. Check out our article about how to dispute an error with the bureaus for tips on filing your dispute and ensuring your problem gets fixed.
Direct from the Bureaus – One by One
After 2023, if you have already used your free annual report and want to check your full credit report, Equifax, Experian, and Transunion also sell consumers copies of their credit report. Federal law caps the price, currently $13.50.
The credit bureaus offer other options to obtain free reports
- Equifax includes six free reports per year with their myEquifax account, available here: Equifax: Credit Report Services
- Experian offers free credit reports as a perk of creating an account on their website, but they do not make it clear how often these reports can be requested: Experian: Free Credit Report
Be aware: the credit bureaus typically try to up-sell credit scores and credit monitoring subscriptions to consumers who seek to purchase an individual report. For many consumers, these products are a waste of money, and can even deprive you of your right to go to court over credit reporting errors.
Although getting a sense of your credit score can be useful if you’re applying for a loan or product that relies on your credit score, the score you receive will not be the same score that your lender receives (see next section about credit scores). Credit monitoring services help people at high-risk detect signs in their credit reports of fraud and identity theft but can be costly and not the strongest form of protection (a credit freeze is much more effective).
Checking Your Credit Score
The most common measure of credit score is called the “FICO score” – so named because it is a score calculated from data on your credit report using an algorithm developed by the data analytics firm Fair, Isaac and Company (FICO). The FICO score is the most common credit score used by most banks and lenders to evaluate applicants for mortgages and loans, used 90% of the time. Since the creation of the FICO score in the 1980s, FICO has updated its scoring model numerous times (e.g., Classic FICO, FICO 8, FICO 9, FICO 10/10T) and released a variety of versions of FICO for different purposes (credit cards, auto).
Another credit score you may see frequently is “VantageScore” which is a credit score developed by the Big Three credit bureaus as an alternative credit scoring algorithm to FICO scores. Although both scores look similar because they use similar data and also have a similar range (300-850), your FICO score and your VantageScore can be very different.
Remember: When you check your score, you are usually getting a score that is different than the score that a lender gets. They might use a different score model (VantageScore versus FICO) and/or a different version of the score (different score generations or industry specific models).
You can check your credit score in a number of different ways:
Through Your Bank, Credit Union, or Credit Card
Many banks, credit unions, and credit card companies have programs their customers can use to access their FICO score at least once a month. This service is typically included in their online platform and/or through their banking app by phone. Since the service is already included as a benefit for your existing account, if you have access to your score through a bank or credit card you can check your score at least once a month for free!
You can check your bank, credit union, or credit card provider’s website–or reach out to their customer service department–to see if they offer free credit scores as a benefit to customers and how to access the service.
Through Third-Party Sites
Third-party sites like CreditKarma.com, CreditSesame.com, and Mint are other well-advertised companies that offer ways to check your credit score, often for free – but they come with a caveat: As with credit reports generally, consumers are not the customers of these free services. Consumers are the product. So if you choose to use these third-party services to check your credit be aware.
These services may help you see your credit score, but they also collect information about you to sell to financial service companies and also they will advertise financial products to you, and encourage you to get loans through their customers: the financial companies.
They may even try to sell you products that you may not qualify for: the Federal Trade Commission recently announced a $3 million dollar proposed settlement with Credit Karma for deceptively telling consumers they were “pre-approved” for a loan or credit card—but nearly a third of consumers who applied after receiving a “pre-approved” offer from Credit Karma were turned down when they applied.