Credit reports and scores

A beginner’s guide to credit reports

When you’re preparing for a major expenditure like buying a home or a car, or even renting an apartment, your credit report will probably come up in conversation. And it can be a bit nerve-racking to have your entire financial history laid out in one place. 

You might be wondering what a credit report even is, where the information comes from, and why it matters. Here’s what industry experts have to say. 

What is a credit report?  

Think of your credit report like your financial health history. It’s a statement that includes detailed information about your current credit situation and past credit history. All of this information is voluntarily submitted by banks, credit unions, debt collectors, and credit card issuers to one or more of the three major credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. This recorded information is then used by lenders, potential landlords, and even future bosses to determine if they want to lend you money, offer a line of credit, approve your rental application, and more. 

“Whether you apply for a new credit card, loan, or mortgage, a lender will look at your credit report to gauge the likelihood that you will repay your debts as agreed going forward,” says Rod Griffin, senior director of public education and advocacy for Experian. Lenders use the information in your credit report when deciding whether to extend credit and determining the interest rate and terms of the offer.”

What does a credit report include? 

Each of the major credit reporting bureaus can provide you with a credit report, but some may offer a more comprehensive report than others. It’s up to lenders how much they share with these agencies and which agencies they share information with. Even so, your reports will be broken down in a similar way. 

Here’s the information you can expect to see on your credit report: 

  • Personal identifiable information (PII): This includes identifying information like your full name, your date of birth, your Social Security number, your phone numbers, your current and former addresses, and a snapshot of your employment history. Each time you review your credit report, you should double-check that all of this information is correct. “Consistently reading your credit reports is one of the foundations of healthy credit and a good way to help spot potential identity theft,” says Margaret Poe, head of consumer credit education at TransUnion. A simple misspelling in your name or an incorrect digit in your Social Security number can cause your credit information to get mixed up with someone else’s, and this could seriously hurt your credit score
  • Credit accounts: Lenders share information with the reporting agencies about how many accounts you’ve opened, what kinds of accounts they are, your balances, and payment history. If you’re missing an account, it could be that the lender hasn’t reported that account to the credit reporting agency you requested your report from, or it may be an old account that dropped off your report altogether; this usually happens after seven to 10 years. However, if you spot an account that you didn’t open yourself, this could be a sign of credit fraud and should be reported to all of the bureaus immediately. 
  • Credit inquiries: This happens any time your credit report is checked after you’ve applied for a new loan, line of credit, rental, or other service. You can expect these inquiries to stay on your credit report for up to two years. 
  • Bankruptcies and collections: If you’ve filed for bankruptcy or have any past-due credit accounts, you can expect that your credit report will include this information as well. It’ll also go into detail about what kind of bankruptcy you filed, filing dates, and the amount and types of debts that have been sent to collections. 

One figure you won’t see on your credit report: your credit score. The three major credit reporting bureaus don’t usually include credit scores on credit reports. “People often assume their credit report and credit score are one and the same; however, this is not the case,” says Griffin. “Your credit score is a three-digit number that is calculated by applying a credit scoring formula to the information in your credit report.” 

If you want to access your score, you can usually do this through your credit card company, loan statement, or credit-scoring service online. 

Where to get a copy of your credit report 

Typically, you can request a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every 12 months through All three major credit reporting agencies currently offer free weekly online credit reports through December 2023 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Equifax is also offering everyone in the U.S. six free credit reports per year through 2023 through its website. 

Once you’ve requested your report, your request should be processed and you should receive your report within 15 days. This can take less time if you request your report online, or you may experience delays if the credit reporting agency needs more information to verify your identity. 

Pro tip: You don’t have to request all three reports at the same time; in fact, you may want to spread out these requests so that you’re able to monitor your credit report throughout the year. 

You can still get a copy of your credit report once you’ve already requested your three free copies—although you’ll likely have to pay a fee. The good news: A credit reporting company isn’t allowed to charge you more than $13.50 for a credit report. 

You may also be able to request an additional free report if… 

  • You’ve received a fraud alert: This is an alert placed on your credit file that tells lenders and credit card companies you may be a victim of  fraud or identity theft. 
  • You were denied credit, insurance, or employment: This is known as an “adverse action.” If this happens, you’ll have 60 days to request your free report from the reporting agency. 
  • Your report is inaccurate: If you believe that your credit report contains inaccurate information due to fraud, you may be able to request an additional free copy. 
  • You’re unemployed or receive public welfare assistance: You may be eligible for a free report if you’re unemployed and intend to apply for employment within 60 days from the date of your request, or if you’re a recipient of public welfare assistance. 

How often should you check your credit report? 

Closely monitoring your credit report is essential in building and maintaining a clean financial history and setting yourself up to hit all of your major money-related milestones. 

You can opt for a credit-monitoring service to help you keep tabs on your credit report throughout the year: Experian, Capital One, and Credit Karma all offer credit-monitoring services that will alert you of any suspicious changes to your credit report, potential fraud or identity theft threats, and more. But checking your credit report yourself and carefully reviewing it from top to bottom is key. 

“I suggest checking your credit report at least once a year, and at least three to six months before making any major purchases, such as a new home or new car,” says Griffin. “Reviewing your credit report regularly allows you to stay informed about what lenders will see when you apply for credit or services. This will help you be prepared when you are seeking new lines of credit, and avoid any financial surprises.” 

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