The three major credit bureaus—TransUnion, Equifax and Experian—keep records regarding people’s credit history. Find out more about what information a credit bureau might have on file for you, how they get it, and how you can see it below.
In This Piece
- What Are the Three Credit Bureaus?
- What Do the Credit Reporting Agencies Do?
- What Information Do the Credit Bureaus Maintain?
- Where Do Bureaus Get Their Information?
- What Do They Do with My Information?
- How Long Do They Keep Your Information?
- Why Are There Three Main Credit Reporting Agencies?
- What Are the Differences Between the Three Main Credit Reporting Agencies?
- How Are FICO and VantageScore Different from the Main Credit Reporting Agencies?
- Can Other Types of Data Help My Credit Score?
- Why Doesn’t My Credit Report Show My Credit Score?
- Emergency Credit Options
- Get Your Credit Report and Work on Your Credit Today
What Are the Three Credit Bureaus?
Credit bureaus are organizations that keep records of people’s credit history. That can include what financial accounts you have and whether or not you pay those bills on time. There are three major credit bureaus in the United States. Each is slightly different, and each keeps its own records. That means that your credit report with each bureau can be different.
Founded in 1899 in Atlanta, Georgia, the Retail Credit Company grew quickly, and by the 1920s, it had offices all over America. Consumers were initially ranked as “prompt,” “slow” or “requiring more cash”—in other words, unable to pay at all.
At first, the Retail Credit Company published consumer data in a consolidated document called The Merchant Report. Later, it began selling individual consumer files on demand. In 1976, the Retail Credit Company rebranded, and Equifax was born.
Today, Equifax offers products including consumer and credit reports, fraud detection products, marketing, and risk management services.
Experian’s origins go back to an electronics business called TRW. Software engineers at TRW came up with an automatic credit reporting system, which the business launched when it acquired Credit Data in 1968. Consumer data collection began with punch cards and quickly progressed to magnetic tape.
In 1996, two private equity firms, Bain Capital and Thomas H Lee, bought TRW Credit Data and renamed it Experian. Now, Experian is one of the three major credit bureaus.
TransUnion began life as the parent company of a railcar leasing firm called the Union Tank Car Company in 1968. When UTCC bought the Credit Bureau of Cook County in 1969, a credit bureau was born.
Initially, TransUnion kept all its consumer data in filing cabinets—but soon, it began using an automated tape-to-disc transfer system. This innovative new system made consumer file updates much easier.
TransUnion kept focusing on accessibility and innovation over the next half-century, expanding its international bureau portfolio and eventually offering consumers online access to their credit reports. Now, TransUnion products include debt recovery, fraud management, and portfolio management.
What Do the Credit Reporting Agencies Do?
Credit reporting agencies collect consumer data—mostly related to financial matters such as accounts and payments. They organize the information into credit reports.
Lenders can access reports—with consumer permission—to evaluate someone for a loan or other financial opportunity. They may look at your credit history to determine what kind of risk you are as a borrower. If you have negative items on your credit history, the lender may not approve you for credit or might do so at a higher interest rate. The credit bureau doesn’t have anything to do with these decisions and only provides the information it has on file.
Consumers can also access their reports to see what’s in their history. Credit reporting agencies have an additional responsibility to keep accurate information, so you can dispute information on your credit report if you don’t feel it’s correct.
Fair Credit Reporting Act
A federal law originally passed in 1970, the Fair Credit Reporting Act is designed to ensure credit reporting fairness, privacy, and accuracy. Credit bureaus must follow the provisions of this law. Under the terms of the FCRA, consumers are entitled to:
- Check the accuracy of their own credit reports
- Get notified if they’ve been refused credit because of something held on file about them
- Dispute erroneous information on their reports
- Have negative information removed from their reports after 7 to 10 years, depending on the type of information
What Information Do the Credit Bureaus Maintain?
All three credit bureaus keep similar types of information on consumer credit accounts. They begin with a record of the consumer’s name, address, Social Security number, and personal information. Then, they list information about consumer tradelines.
Tradelines include credit cards, bank accounts, mortgage lenders, and other creditors. Each bureau report has a slightly different layout, but all three agencies record the following tradeline data:
- Lender name
- Account number
- Account age
- Credit limit
- High balance
- Current balance
- Payment history
- Last activity date
Credit reports also contain information about collections accounts, bankruptcies, and hard inquiries. Hard inquiries occur when a lender checks your credit report as part of the process of evaluating you for a loan or other credit.
Where Do Bureaus Get Their Information?
The information in your credit report is provided to the bureaus by lenders and collection agencies. For example, if you take out a car loan, the lender typically reports the amount you borrowed, your current balance and whether you’ve paid on time to at least one of the credit bureaus.
Lenders and other organizations aren’t obligated to report this information. While many creditors report to all three major credit bureaus, some only report to one or two. Some don’t report the information at all. This is why your report can be different with each bureau.
What Do They Do with My Information?
Credit bureaus keep your information on file and report it when asked in the form of a credit report. Times when your credit report can be made available include:
- When you agree to let a lender or other creditor pull your report to evaluate you for a loan or credit card
- When a credit card company or other lender does a soft pull to qualify you for an offer
- When you allow an employer, landlord, utility company, or auto insurance company to pull your credit for background check purposes
- When you access your credit report yourself
How Long Do They Keep Your Information?
Credit bureaus keep information on file for seven to 10 years, depending on the type of information. Late payments roll off your credit report in seven years. Bankruptcies, however, can stay on your report for up to 10 years. Overall information about your account can remain on your report as long as the account is open and may remain on it for up to seven years after you close the account in some cases.
Why Are There Three Main Credit Reporting Agencies?
The process of credit reporting has been around for over 100 years. Back then, credit reporting was primarily done by local agencies. Additionally, it was typically only lenders who requested this information when trying to evaluate a person’s creditworthiness.
However, these agencies initially only served specific regions of the country. For example, Equifax served the Eastern and Southern regions of the country, Experian covered the Western section, and TransUnion served those living in the central region of the United States. As the demand for credit reporting information continued to rise, all three of these agencies started providing national services.
While there are many other credit reporting agencies, TransUnion, Experian and Equifax remain the most popular credit bureaus in the country. In fact, many lenders use credit information from these main agencies almost exclusively. The fact that these three credit bureaus are the oldest agencies still in operation is the main reason they’re still popular today.
How Many Credit Reporting Agencies Are There?
While TransUnion, Equifax and Experian are the most popular credit reporting agencies, there are dozens of smaller agencies offering these services. Many of these agencies offer specialized credit reporting information, such as employment and tenant screening.
Markets these alternative credit check organizations specialize in include:
- Medical insurance
- Private property insurance
- Employment screening
- Tenant screening
- Utility screening
- Checking and bank account screening
- Low-Income and subprime screening
What Are the Differences Between the Three Main Credit Reporting Agencies?
It’s not uncommon for people to lump TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian together as if they’re just one agency. The reality is that these credit bureaus are separate, independent companies. While they collect similar data, how they manage and organize this data is different.
For example, Experian includes rental payments, if reported by a landlord, in its reports. Neither TransUnion nor Equifax offers these services. Additionally, TransUnion often provides more employment data than the other two agencies. While this step doesn’t impact your credit score, it can help lenders confirm your employment history.
Because each agency is an independent company, they don’t share information with each other. Instead, each agency gathers your data from its own sources, which are primarily creditors.
It’s also important to realize that creditors can pick and choose which credit agencies they want to report your information to. While many creditors send the same data to all three major credit reporting agencies, this isn’t always the case. This is one reason it’s so important to monitor your credit reports from all three agencies. You can do this by reviewing your free credit report at least once every year.
How Are FICO and VantageScore Different from the Main Credit Reporting Agencies?
When it comes to calculating your credit score, the two most popular scoring models are FICO and VantageScore. These companies don’t collect and manage your personal information like credit reporting agencies do. Instead, they create a model for calculating your credit score. Then, they use the information already listed in your credit reports from the three main credit reporting agencies, such as your payment history and credit utilization ratio, to determine your credit score.
FICO is the oldest and most popular credit scoring model used today. In fact, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac use the FICO score almost exclusively. VantageScore is also managed by an independent company, but its development was done through a joint partnership of TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian.
You might think you have just one credit score, but that’s not accurate. Both FICO and VantageScore calculate different credit scores for each of the three major credit report agencies. In fact, it’s highly unlikely to have the same credit score for all three agencies.
One of the reasons for these different credit scores is that there’s different information on each of your credit reports. Another factor causing these different scores is how each of the credit report companies lists your information and how long your credit history remains on your report.
The way these different models calculate your credit score also varies. FICO uses the exact same scoring model for each of the three main credit report agencies. On the other hand, VantageScore uses a different scoring model for each credit report company. These varying calculations are another major reason you can have many different credit scores.
Can Other Types of Data Help My Credit Score?
All the information used to calculate your credit score comes from your credit report. Credits scores are calculated using a variety of algorithms. Depending on which credit bureau the information comes from and which scoring model is used, your credit score can be different.
How to Get My Credit Report
You can access your credit report via several methods:
- Via annualcreditreport.com. You can access your credit report for free from each of the three major credit bureaus at this site at least once every 12 months. During and following the COVID-19 pandemic, the agencies have allowed people to access their reports once a week. However, this perk can go away at any time and isn’t guaranteed.
- By asking in writing after you’ve been denied credit. If a lender or anyone else denies you credit based on information in your credit report, they must send you notification in writing. That notification must include why you were denied and what credit bureau the information came from. You can use that notice to ask the credit bureau to send you a copy of your report so you can check out the information in person.
- By signing up for a service. You can sign up for services such as ExtraCredit that give you anytime access to your credit reports as well as your scores.
Credit Report vs. Credit Score
It’s important to note that credit reports and credit scores aren’t the same thing. Scores are calculated based on the information in your credit report. However, your credit report doesn’t have a score on it.
Why Doesn’t My Credit Report Show My Credit Score?
There are many credit scoring models and algorithms. Lenders often choose the model they want to use, and there are different preferences for credit card, auto loan, mortgage, and other types of lenders. Because there’s not one universal credit score, your credit report doesn’t automatically come with a score.
Emergency Credit Options
If you think you’ve been the victim of fraud and your credit information is at risk, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself:
- Place a credit freeze. When you place a credit freeze on your report, you deny lenders access to your credit history. Lenders can’t pull your history to evaluate you for a loan, limiting fraudsters’ ability to use your identity to take out fake loans in your name. You can manually unfreeze your accounts whenever you’re ready to do so.
- Place a fraud alert. Fraud alerts act like red flags. Fraud alerts stay on your accounts for 90 days and then end automatically.
- Two-factor authentication. This makes it harder for identity thieves to gain access to your financial accounts in the first place. If you have two-factor authentication in place, you’ll need to enter a code sent to your phone or respond to an email in addition to entering a password.
- ExtraCredit provides Guard It, a tool that comes with $1 million in identity theft insurance and includes a dark web monitoring service. It also sends out ID alerts to make sure nobody else uses your identity to open credit accounts.
Get Your Credit Report and Work on Your Credit Today
The credit bureaus may be tasked with keeping fair, accurate records, but the information originates with lenders. It’s possible inaccurate negative information is hurting your credit history and score—possibly because of a mistake as innocent as a typo.
Take time to review your credit report today so you can engage in credit repair. You can handle credit repair yourself or work with professionals that help you dispute inaccurate information on your reports and get a fair, accurate accounting of your credit history.