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What is a Credit Score?

You’ve heard of credit scores. Maybe you’ve even checked yours. But do you really understand what they are and how they work? Here we explain what credit scores are and what you need to know to make the most of yours.

So, What is a Credit Score?

Credit scores are created by taking information from credit reports and analyzing that data to forecast how someone is likely to behave in the future. By looking at factors like how much debt consumers carry, and whether they have paid their bills on time in the past, for example, they help predict whether someone might pay a new bill on time or how they will handle a credit line increase.

Who Creates Credit Scores?

Most credit scores used by lenders and insurance companies today are created by FICO or VantageScore using credit information from the three major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Why Do I Have More Than One Score?

It’s important not to get too hung up on a single number because, in fact, there are dozens of different credit scores that could be created right now using information from your credit reports.

One reason for this is that the credit reporting agencies each collect and report information independently and they may not have the same credit information about you. For example, a collection account may show up on one credit report and not another.

Another reason your scores can be different is that there are many different credit scores available. Some are used to predict different things; credit-based insurance scores, for example, are used to predict how likely consumers are to file insurance claims, and so they may differ from scores used to predict how someone will manage a higher credit card limit.

In addition, lenders might customize scores to help them better manage their own accounts. That means that even a FICO score based on Experian credit report information, for example, could vary from one lender to the next.

Finally, some scores are “educational” scores and they have been created strictly to educate consumers about their credit.

What is a Good Credit Score?

It depends! Each lender decides how to use these numbers. But here are some basic guidelines:

760 – 850: Excellent
700 – 749: Average – very good
650 – 699: Fair
600 – 649: Poor
Below 599: Bad

A great way to understand your credit score is to use’s free Credit Report Card. You’ll get your VantageScore and an Experian score, along with letter grades that will help you understand how you’re doing in each of the major areas that make up your score, such as payment history and debt.

Does Checking My Credit (Or Scores) Hurt My Credit?

No. If you check your credit through a service that provides credit reports to consumers – including your free annual credit report or your free credit score through – it will not affect your credit score in any way. You can check as often as you like with no negative repercussions. The only time checking your report would hurt your scores is if you ask a lender to pull your report for you; for example, you ask your bank or an auto dealer to get your report and show it to you. Credit checks by lenders can affect your scores.

How Fast Do My Credit Scores Change?

Scores are calculated when they are created based on the information available at that time. So if new information is reported that significantly affects your score, such as a collection account that is reported for the first time, then the next time your score is requested by a lender – or by you – your score will be based on that new information.

Similarly, if you dispute something on your credit report that’s having a big impact on your scores and that item is removed – that collection account for example! – your scores can change significantly next time they are calculated.

Check Your Credit Score for Free

You can get your credit score for free using’s free Credit Report Card. This tool is truly free; you won’t be asked for any payment information. Monitor your score with a free update every other week. Using the Credit Report Card does not affect your scores in any way.

What’s in My Credit Score?

Ever applied for a credit card or taken out a car loan? What about borrowing student loans to help pay for college? If you’ve done any of these, chances are, you have a credit score. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) explains on its site, “a credit score predicts how likely you are to pay back a loan on time. A scoring model uses information from your credit report to create your credit score.”

What’s a Credit Score?

A credit score is a numerical representation of your likelihood to pay a loan back as agreed. They’re used primarily by lenders to determine whether to approve a certain loan, like a mortgage or credit card. There are lots of different credit scores that lenders use, but they’re all based off the information in your credit reports. In general, most scores range from 300 to 850, the CFPB says. A high credit score indicates you’re not a big risk and are likely to pay back the financing a lender provides. As such, it places you within reach of your financial goals, such as owning a home or buying a new car. However, a poor credit score indicates that you are a risky borrower — you may not be approved for credit, or if you are approved, you’ll likely pay a higher interest rate. You can see where two of your credit scores currently rank you using our free credit report snapshot.

What’s in a Credit Score?

As a rule, all credit scores are based on five key categories in your credit reports. In this article, we’ll go over each and explain how they work.

1. Payment History

Payment history accounts for roughly 35% of your credit score. This one is pretty self-explanatory, as paying your bills on time will help keep scores high, while late payments, charge-offs and collections will hurt it. If you’re trying to improve your credit rating, it’s important to avoid the latter at all costs. Lenders know whether or not you pay bills on time and report your payment history to the three major credit agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Once they’ve received this info, they load it onto their databases and create an updated record of your account month by month. In general, your credit report will reflect your payment history for any credit account you’ve held in the past seven to 10 years.

2. Your Amount of Debt

Approximately 30% of your credit score is based on the amount of debt you’re currently carrying or, more specifically, the amount of money you currently owe to your creditors. There are several types of debt, including installment debt, which is money owed to a creditor who expects to be repaid over a fixed period of time; revolving debt, such as credit cards, which is money owed to a creditor who sets a monthly payment based on the current balance; and open debt, which is the least common type of debt found on a credit report. With open debt, each month you create a balance and pay it in full once you get your bill. In order to maximize your scores in this section, it’s a good idea to keep your balances in relation to your credit, or credit utilization, as low as possible. General rule of thumb is below at least 30% and ideally 10% of your total available credit limits.

3. Length of Credit History

Comprising roughly 15% of your score, this section measures how long you’ve had credit, or the length of your credit history. Obviously, the longer you’ve had credit, the more points you’ll earn, which is just another reason not to close your accounts. It’s important to keep in mind that how long you’ve had credit pertains to the age of the information in your credit history, not your personal age. Many consumers get this mixed up and believe their age affects their credit scores.

4. Types of Credit

Worth 10% of the points in your credit score, this section looks for a healthy mix of credit accounts. Having different types of accounts, including credit cards issued by a retail store, home equity lines of credit, auto loans, and so on, will ensure you do well here. Of course, you’ll want to manage your accounts responsibly, as credit scoring models like to see you can handle different financing. Also, there’s no ideal mix of accounts to aim for, as one mix may work for one person and be a burden for another.

5. Your History of Searching for Credit

This section accounts for 10% of the points in your credit score. Whenever you apply for credit from a lender, a hard inquiry posts to your credit report. And whenever a lender pulls your credit report, each of the three credit reporting agencies is required by federal law to keep a record of that activity for 24 months. As a rule, it’s wise to avoid excessively shopping for credit and only open a new account when you really need it. Otherwise, lenders may think you have trouble managing credit. Soft inquiries, like pulling your own credit, do not hurt your credit score.

Remember, your credit score is based on five key categories that examine your use of credit. Pay your bills on time, keep a healthy mix of accounts and debt levels low, and try to limit hard inquiries as your score can handle them.

This article has been updated. It was originally published on April 30, 2014.

Why Do I Have So Many Credit Scores?

Credit scores help lenders gauge a borrower’s likelihood of repaying debt, and because there are thousands of lenders and dozens of loan products, there are all sorts of credit scores.

At first glance, it can all be confusing, but there’s no reason to dwell on point differences among credit scores or even the fact that you have multiple scores. What is more important to focus on is what’s behind the scores.

What Your Credit Score Measures

The various scoring models have one thing in common: Turning a consumer’s financial history into usable data for determining whether they are a good credit risk. The major credit scoring formulas are based on the information in your credit reports. Beyond that, however, the similarities begin to diverge. That’s because not all of your financial information gets reported to every credit bureau, leading to different information among credit reports. As such, you may get different credit scores from the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), even if the bureaus use the same scoring model.

The major credit scoring models look at five major components of your credit reports to determine your scores. Those include your payment history, how much available credit you have, the age of your credit accounts, the types of credit accounts you have open, and how many credit inquiries you have.

You can see how you’re faring in each of these categories by using’s free Credit Report Summary, which can tell you areas of your credit history that may need work and provides access to two of your credit scores — one from VantageScore and one from Experian.

Most credit scores used by companies today are created by FICO or VantageScore, though there are others, including some newer models that take into account things like utility payments and other non-traditional factors. These “alternative scores” can be good for people who have not established a history of traditional credit on their credit reports with things like credit cards, mortgages and auto loans.

What Is the Difference Between VantageScore & FICO?

The VantageScore was developed by the major credit reporting agencies and uses a combined set of consumer credit files from the three agencies to come up with a single formula. The scores for the most recent iteration of this scoring model, the VantageScore 3.0, ranges from 300 to 850, with a higher score indicating lower risk.

FICO was developed by Fair Isaac Corporation and bases its credit scoring models on credit reports obtained separately from each of the three reporting agencies. FICO then builds scores based on each specific agency’s data. While the score range is the same for FICO and VantageScore 3.0, there isn’t just one FICO score.

Which Scoring Model Will a Creditor Use?

That will depend. For example, an auto lender may be more interested in a consumer’s history of repaying loans rather than a credit card, so the lender may pick a scoring model that puts less weight on a credit card’s payment history. Some scoring models offer different options based on the lender’s market, or a lender can order a custom formula.

“Lenders, they have choice,” says Jeff Richardson, vice president of public relations at VantageScore Solutions. “That’s important, because they need to have the best predictive capabilities for their businesses.”

With every tweak of the math, a consumer has another credit score, and that turns into a lot of numbers to track.

What’s an ‘Educational Credit Score?’

Even with all the various scoring models out there, there are really two main types of credit scores: educational scores and scores lenders use in their decision-making processes. Both can be valuable to a consumer.

“Educational scores — they’re not scores used by lenders to make lending decisions,” said Anthony Sprauve, director of public relations for FICO. “They can give a person a general sense of their credit standing.”

By tracking a single score over an extended period of time, a consumer can gauge the impact of financial decisions and progress toward financial goals. In other words: It’s not a score-to-score comparison that’s helpful, but rather a periodic review of the same scoring model that will provide the best insight into your credit profile.

The important thing is to compare apples to apples — pick a score monitor your credit frequently to see how your behaviors are impacting your credit.

This article has been updated. It was originally published April 30, 2014.

I Want to Get My Credit Scores for Free. How Do I Do That?

There are several ways to see your credit scores — yes, plural credit scores — you have multiple credit scores, but more on that in a minute.

One way to find out your credit score is to apply for credit. If you are turned down or charged more for credit based on your score, the lender must tell you the score they used to make their decision. But before you start filling out an application, you’ll want to think of the implications this new line of credit can have on your scores: Any hard inquiry on your credit profile will cause a ding to your scores. So, that said, you don’t want to sign up for new credit just to see your scores. Plus, the lender doesn’t have to send your credit score if you get approved at the best terms, so this isn’t a guaranteed method.

A surefire way to see where your credit stands is by checking your scores right here on By taking a look at your free credit report snapshot, you’ll see two of your scores, plus a breakdown of the factors that affect your credit so you can see where you are doing well and what areas you might want to focus on improving. As you work to improve any trouble spots, you can check back on your scores.

Another option is to sign up for a trial membership to a credit monitoring service to get your credit score at no cost. These services usually offer a 10-day free trial or something similar. If you don’t cancel after the trial period ends, you will be charged for an ongoing membership so make sure you stay on top of this if you don’t want to be charged. These services can be useful if you want to monitor your credit with more than one credit reporting agency.

These aren’t the only ways to see your free credit scores, but they are some good options. Now that you know how to access your credit score for free, there are some additional things you should know about your credit.

You Have More Than One Credit Score

At any given time, there are dozens of credit score models that can be used by lenders or insurance companies to evaluate applicants or customers. There’s no single “accurate” or “real” score; the score lenders use depends on their needs at that time. If you opt to check your credit on, you’ll see your VantageScore 3.0 credit score and your credit score from the credit bureau Experian.

Instead of obsessing about the number, look at what your score is telling you about your credit. Is it good? Not so good? Do you have things you need to focus on improving? Are there errors that you need to dispute? (If there are, you can read this guide to help you understand your options on how to dispute errors on your credit reports.)

And Your Scores Change

Scores change. In fact, these numbers are created when they are requested. If new information about your credit is reported to the credit reporting agencies, then the next time your score is requested and calculated, it will likely be different. That means that checking your credit scores shouldn’t be a one-time event. Monitoring your scores over time will allow you to see how they’re changing and spot any problems.

So, What Is a Good Credit Score?

Most credit scores have a range of 300 to 850. Using this range, a good credit score typically falls in the 700 to 749 range. But, as we mentioned, defining a “good” score depends on what issuer is looking at your scores and for what reason, so there is a lot of variance. For your own monitoring purposes, it’s a good idea to choose one or two scores and keep an eye on them. This way, you’re comparing apples to apples and can see if there are improvements to your scores because of your improved financial choices. You can also watch them for a sudden drop, as this can be a sign of identity theft.

Don’t Forget Your Credit Reports

Your score is only as good as the information behind it. The scores are typically calculated using information in one of your three credit reports from the main credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. If that information is wrong, then this number won’t accurately reflect your creditworthiness. For that reason, it’s important to also get your free annual credit reports to understand the finer details about your credit, as well as to make sure the reports don’t contain mistakes. You’ll want to review each of them, as not every place reports to each credit bureau, so the information on your reports may be slightly different. You can access your free credit reports every 12 months by visiting

This article has been updated. It was originally published April 30, 2014.

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