If you’re trying to check your credit for free but find it a little confusing, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Chances are you have a lot of questions, especially about all those terms that seem similar: What’s a FICO score? How is that different than a VangtageScore? And Equifax? Experian? TransUnion? What about credit scores and credit reports — what’s the difference? Which should you get? And how?
These things are complicated, but here’s the first thing you need to know: Credit reports and credit scores are not the same thing. A credit report is a document that details your history of using credit. A credit score is a three-digit number an algorithm spits out based on the information in your credit reports. If you want to know why your credit score is what it is, the details are in your credit report.
Free Credit Reports
First, let’s talk about free credit reports. Your credit report is a record of payments on most of your credit accounts, such as your mortgage, credit cards, student loans or auto loans. The three major credit reporting agencies compile and sell credit reports: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. By law you can get a free copy of your report from each of these agencies once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com, and it’s a good idea to regularly review these reports to make sure they’re accurate. It’s also important to note not all credit reports contain the same information, which is why you want to routinely request your free annual credit reports from each of the major credit bureaus. You are also entitled to additional free copies if you are a victim of fraud, unemployed and looking for a job, or turned down for credit.
Your credit reports may be several pages long and can sometimes be confusing or difficult to decipher. The Ultimate Credit Report Cheat Sheet can help you understand yours.
Free Credit Scores
Credit scores are three-digit numbers created using the information in credit reports. That information is used to try to predict how likely you are to pay your bills on time. While you have only three credit reports (at least from the major, national agencies), there are dozens of scores that can be calculated based on your credit information. Scores may be customized for insurance purposes, for example, or to predict whether you are likely to default on an auto loan or credit card. Such custom credit scoring models are sometimes called proprietary credit scores. All credit scores have different ranges, too, so what qualifies as a good credit score on one scale may not be good on another. Be sure to know the scale when you’re looking at a credit score. (The “common” scale, used in FICO’s basic model and VantageScore 3.0, is 300 to 850.)
You are not entitled to a free credit score annually, but it’s easy to get a free credit score. For example, you can see two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com, along with a personalized action plan for improving your credit. Every credit score is a little different, and even the same credit scoring model may produce a different result if it’s based on a different credit report. The lesson here is that it’s hard to know exactly what your credit score will be when a potential creditor looks at it (or what score they’ll even look at). Instead of obsessing over a specific number, regularly review your credit reports for accuracy and focus on the fundamentals of good credit like paying down debt, making payments on time, waiting for negative information to age off your credit reports and and sparingly applying for good credit.
Checking your own credit reports and credit scores doesn’t hurt your credit, by the way.
If you are turned down or charged more for credit (known as “adverse action”) based on your credit information, the lender must provide you with a disclosure that tells you how to get your free credit report and must provide the score that was used in the transaction, if one was used.
Summary of Free Credit Report Vs. Free Credit Score
|Free Credit Report||Free Credit Score|
|Three major agencies (Equifax, Experian, Trans Union)||Dozens available, including multiple versions of FICO scores and VantageScore scores|
|One free per year from each major agency at AnnualCreditReport.com||Available through services such as Credit.com|
|Free copy in the case of adverse action||Free disclosure in the case of adverse action|
This article was originally published June 3, 2015 and has been updated.