Article originally published December 12th. 2016. Updated October 26th, 2018.
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 VantageScore?
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 credit bureaus 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 that 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 three 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 many different types of credit 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.) Each lender may use a different scoring model as well.
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 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|
To better understand the differences between a credit score and credit report, we need to break them each down and look at the elements that make them what they are.
The following information is regarding credit scores:
What is a FICO Score?
FICO Scores are the most widely used credit scores and were created by the Fair Isaac Corporation. Approximately ninety percent of lenders use FICO Scores when they are determining if you are a good credit risk or not.
FICO’s Scoring model falls between 300 and 850. The higher your FICO Score, the lower the risk lenders will think you are, and they will be more apt to extend credit to you. The FICO Scores are calculated using only the information that is contained in each of your three credit reports.
FICO Scores may be different between each of the three major credit bureaus, and the score can change over time. This is why it is so important that you stay on top of your credit history and credit scores, so you can make sure that all the information in your credit file is accurate so that your scores are also being calculated accurately.
What is a VantageScore?
The VantageScore 3.0 model was recently introduced in 2013 and is one of the most up to date and current scoring models. Like your FICO Score, the VantageScore is also determined with the information found on your credit file and can be impacted by several factors including your on-time payment history, credit history, debt-to-income ratios, and your overall credit balances.
The VantageScore model only requires one month of credit history in order to generate, while other scoring models typically require at least six months of credit history and recent credit report updates.
The Bottom Line on Credit Scores
Your credit is an integral component of your financial health and well-being and is a big determinant when you try to obtain any kind of loan or credit line. It shows potential lenders if you are trustworthy or not and if they should consider you a low or high risk.
The following are the different ways that credit scores are calculated:
- Your payment history accounts for 35% and is the number one factor considered when calculating your FICO Score. So it is important that you do not have any late payments or missed payments being reported
- 30% includes the amounts you owe, or the total amount of your debt owed when compared to your available credit (credit utilization ratio)
- Your credit history length makes up 15% of your credit score
- The mix and diversity of your credit accounts make up another 10% of your score
- And any new credit accounts you have opened make up for another 10%
The average FICO Score nationally averages around the 700 mark right now on the scoring models- to give you an idea on where your credit score should fall to be considered low risk.
And now let’s take a closer look at credit reports:
Everyone has three credit reports. One from each of the major credit bureaus- Experian, Transunion, and Equifax. The information you find on one credit report from one credit bureau may differ from the information you will find on the other.
What Information is on a Credit Report?
The following is an example of some of the information you may find on your credit reports:
- Personal information such as your name, address, birthdate, and partial social security number
- A list of all of your past and current credit accounts with the lender name, account number, original and current balance, and payment history and status
- Credit balances and the highest balances you are carrying
- Public records such as liens, judgments, and bankruptcies
There is more information contained in the credit reports, and since each is different, you will have to pull each credit report to check for inaccuracies and errors and make sure all your personal information is correct and updated.
The bottom line is that our credit scores and credit reports may be different, but they are an important aspect of our lives and need to be carefully monitored and maintained to help ensure a safe and stable financial future and maintain good credit.
Additionally, taking advantage of credit monitoring services may help you combat identity theft and fraud because you will receive alerts any time something suspicious occurs with your credit.
Being able to catch identity theft and fraud and other suspicious activity early on will help to prevent significant damage being done to your credit history and credit scores.