How to Check Your Credit Score
Oh, those credit scores. What looks like a simple, unassuming three-digit number has the power to exert a lot of influence over our lives.
If you’re trying to rent an apartment, get a loan for a house or car, or get a credit card so you can buy those airline tickets to Southeast Asia, your credit score is going to be a big factor in reaching those — or pretty much any — financial goals. Plus, credit scores dictate the cost of those loans, and how much you’ll pay along the way. (Still not convinced? Please read our article on why credit matters.)
Because your credit score plays such a huge role in our everyday lives, it’s important to be aware of it, monitor it, and make sure it’s generally heading higher. Luckily, monitoring our scores is that’s pretty easy to do these days — many legit online sources offer free access to credit scores.
How to check your credit score
Before we dive into the various ways to get your credit score, keep in mind there are different types of credit scores. FICO, which is short for Fair Isaac Corp., is the most prevalent name in the credit-score world, and that company produces many different types of FICO scores. VantageScore is another type of score. Plus, lenders may use their own proprietary scoring algorithms.
All of which is to say, you don’t have just one credit score. One report in 2012 found that FICO alone was using 49 different score models.
Although it’s impossible to know ahead of time which of your scores a lender uses, there’s a simple solution: Find one credit score and focus on that one. Any single credit score provides a proxy for what’s happening in your score universe. When you take steps to improve your credit, generally all of your credit scores should increase. Similarly, when one credit score takes a hit, all of them likely will be affected.
OK, ready to check one of your credit scores? Here are some ways to do that:
1. Use a website
Websites such as CreditWise from Capital One, Credit Karma, NerdWallet, Credit Sesame, WalletHub or Experian offer free credit scores. Often, a summary credit report is included, plus tips on how to improve your credit.
You’ll need to share personal information, e.g. name, address and Social Security number, so be sure to confirm the website’s security measures. You’ll also be sharing your email address, which could mean some spam… er… marketing in your inbox.
2. Use a nonprofit credit counselor
Using a nonprofit credit counselor (search for one at nfcc.org), you’ll usually get a free score, plus help with your budgeting, saving, paying down debt and improving your credit.
There will be forms to fill out during the intake process, so this is more time-consuming than simply checking your score. Beware, though: There are disreputable “debt settlement” and “debt management” companies that might sound good but are more interested in charging you hefty fees. (See these tips from the FTC for finding a reputable credit counselor.)
3. Use your bank or credit card company
This is somewhere you already have an account, which makes it a simple choice. But if you switch banks or close your card, you’ll likely lose access to this particular credit score.
4. Use Equifax, TransUnion, or myFICO.com
Equifax and TransUnion are two of the three credit-reporting companies, and myFICO is the consumer arm of FICO.
Usually you can sign up for a free trial from one of these agencies to get your credit score plus an assortment of other services, such as credit monitoring and identity theft insurance. Note, however, that the free trial will end; then you have to pay money for a credit score that you can get elsewhere for free. (As noted above, the third credit-reporting company, Experian, offers a free credit score.) The credit-monitoring and other services may be convenient, but often these are things you can do on your own at no cost (other than your time).
A word of caution about checking your credit score, in general: Don’t fret about checking too often. Lenders report information to the three credit-reporting companies just once a month, so checking into your credit more frequently is just going to stress you out (and probably everyone around you, too).
Check your credit report, too
It’s not enough to check just your credit score. You need to regularly check both your credit score and your credit report. Your credit score is a three-digit number generated by an algorithm based on the info on your credit report. Your credit report is a listing of all of your loans and your payment history on those loans (specifically, whether you’ve been paying on time, or not). In other words, your credit score is based on the information in your credit report. You need to check your credit report to:
- Figure out your best next steps for addressing your credit. For more on those steps, check out our stories on how to build your credit if you’re starting from scratch, how to improve your credit if it’s not so bad but you want a higher score, and how to fix your credit if you’ve got some negative info on your credit file.
- Make sure there are no mistakes on your credit report. For example, sometimes the credit files of people with similar names get mixed together. Generally, the only way you’ll know that has happened is to check your credit report. For more on dealing with problems on your credit report, check out how to fix your credit.
- Watch for identity theft. If someone opens an account in your name, your credit report is the best way to find out about that fraudulent account and report it.
At a minimum, it’s a good idea to check your credit reports at least once a year. To do that, go to annualcreditreport.com. The U.S. Congress passed a law in 2003 forcing the three big credit-reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — to create this website so consumers like you and me could get our credit reports for free once a year. (Thank you, consumer advocates!)
Some things to note about claiming your credit report from annualcreditreport.com:
Pull a report from each of the three companies. Your Experian credit report could be different from your TransUnion report, which could be different from your Equifax report. That’s because your credit file is based on what lenders report to those three companies. Some lenders report to all three companies, some report to two companies, some report to one company. For the full picture, request all three reports at least once a year.
You can get one free report from each of the three companies once a week. Usually, you can request one free report from each of the three credit-reporting companies — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — once every 12 months. But through December 2023, you can get a free report from each of the companies once a week (thank you pandemic, I guess?).
If you exceed the free report limit, you’ll have to pay. Ask for more than one credit report over the course of seven days and it’ll cost you. (Starting in 2024, that one-week limit is slated to revert to one free report from each of the three providers every 12 months.) But there are some situations that will qualify you for additional free credit reports. For example, if you’re denied a loan because of your credit report, the lender is required to notify you and send you an “adverse action notice” — that notice means you’re eligible to receive a free copy of your credit report, no matter how many you’ve already received. Read about other ways to qualify for an additional free credit report at FTC.gov.
Be sure to go to annualcreditreport.com. Don’t get misled by similar-sounding sites like “freecreditreport.com” and the like. Annualcreditreport.com is the only government-mandated website. Also, note that you could go directly to the websites of each of the three companies — Experian, Equifax or TransUnion — to request a report, but that usually requires signing up for a free trial (the exception is Experian, which offers free reports and scores if you register on its website). At some point, that trial will stop being free. Instead, go to annualcreditreport.com.
Download your credit report immediately. When you request each of your credit reports — one each from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — immediately either print the report or download it to your computer. Once you click away from the report on the website, it’s gone and you’ll have to wait for another week (or, starting in 2024, another 12 months) before you can get it for free again.
Don’t expect to get your credit score when you pull your credit report. It’s a frustrating truth: When you pull your credit reports from annualcreditreport.com, you won’t get your credit score. Although it’s tempting to skip this step and go straight to a site that provides your credit score, remember that the information in your reports determines your three-digit credit GPA.
Be patient with the process. Annualcreditreport.com is awesome, and it’s free. But one thing it’s not? It’s not the smoothest user interface you’ve ever used. Just like the DMV isn’t decked out with flattering lighting and comfy furniture, annualcreditreport.com is built simply to get the job done.
Follow the instructions. Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting your free credit reports on annualcreditreport.com:
- On annualcreditreport.com, click “Request your free credit reports.” On the next page, click “request your free credit reports” again.
- Fill out the online form with your name, birthday, Social Security number, and current address. If you’ve lived at your address for less than two years, you’ll need to fill in your former address, too. Then click “next.”
- Click the checkboxes to request a report from all three of the companies, and then “next.”
- You’ll be taken to a page specific to the first company you clicked in the checkboxes. If it was, for example, TransUnion, you’ll be on a page with this address: annualcreditreport.transunion.com.
- At this point, the company may ask you for some additional information, though this varies by company (Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion). For example, TransUnion asks for your email address and phone number.
- Then come the security questions. Each of the three companies may ask a handful of multiple-choice questions. These questions are automatically generated by the information that the credit-report company has collected on your credit report. The questions tend to be along the lines of: “You took out a car loan in 2013 with which of the following companies,” followed by a list of companies to choose from, or “not applicable.” It’s important to try to get your responses right. If you miss a question, you’ll be forced to request your credit report by mail (or you can try the whole process again a week later).
- Once you’ve answered the questions correctly, voila!, you’ll be shown your report. Print it out or download it to your computer, then click the button that takes you back to annualcreditreport.com, and repeat the process with one or both of the other two credit-report companies.
The home page of annualcreditreport.com. Click on “request your free credit reports.” Source: annualcreditreport.com
The second page of annualcreditreport.com. Click “request your credit reports.” Source: annualcreditreport.com
A partial image of the form to fill out to request your free reports. Source: annualcreditreport.com.
Next steps: Now that you’ve pulled your credit score and report, are you ready to learn more about how to improve your credit score? Continue on with the next article in our series.