You’ve probably never heard of the Fair Isaac Corporation, but it’s heard of you. And it rules much of your life, from your mortgage’s interest rate to your ability to land a job.
That’s because Fair Isaac invented the FICO score, a number used by potential lenders to evaluate your creditworthiness. Since the early ’90s, this credit score has affected the financial lives of countless people across the United States. And you don’t have just one score, either; you have dozens, including multiple FICO scores.
Since they probably won’t go away any time soon, you should understand your FICO scores in and out. Below, we’ll review what you need to know about credit scores, or you can skip straight to the information about where to get your free FICO scores.
What’s a Credit Score?
A credit score is a number (usually between 300 and 850) that helps lenders evaluate how likely you are to pay back a loan. Though the exact formula is a secret, it’s based on your credit history and current credit information (like how many cards you have open and whether or not they’re maxed out).
The national average FICO score is 700, which falls just into the range of “good” credit scores.
When you have good or excellent credit, it means you’re a low credit risk — and lenders are eager to lend you money at low rates. When you have poor or fair credit, it means you’re a high risk — and may have difficulty getting credit, or may only be able to obtain it at high interest rates.
Though you’ll often hear talk about your “credit score” in the singular, you don’t have just one.
In the United States, there are three major credit bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. Each has its own credit file on you, and they could have different information in them. There are many different algorithms that could be used to calculate your credit scores. As a result, your scores might vary depending on which credit reporting agency and type of score your lender uses.
For example, American Express cardholders get a free FICO Score 8, which is a score that ranges from 300 to 850, based on Experian credit report data. On the other hand, Citi cardholders get access to a FICO Bankcard Score 8, which ranges from 250 to 900, based on Equifax credit report data. Even though they’re both FICO scores, there are different ranges of scores, and the two scores are based on data from two different sources.
Why Credit Scores Matter
As mentioned above, your credit scores affect many parts of your life like the rates on your mortgage and auto loan and whether you’re approved for an apartment or job.
Since credit scores touch all lending and credit decisions, you can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend they don’t matter. (Your mom’s meatloaf is fantastic and all, but you really don’t want to live in her basement forever, do you?)
Checking your credit scores will help you figure out where you can improve, and will also help you notice mistakes or signs of identity theft.
To get a free credit report, visit annualcreditreport.com, where you can get one report per year from each credit bureau. Though the reports won’t include credit scores, they will list information about every account you have with creditors so you can monitor them for accuracy. That way, if anything’s incorrect, you can dispute it with the credit bureau.
What’s a FICO Score?
The most well-known type of credit score is the aforementioned FICO score, which is used by most financial institutions to make major lending decisions.
And, despite what you might think, you don’t have just one FICO score either. Since each of the three credit reporting agencies has its own information about you, a separate FICO score is calculated for each one.
Not to mention there are different types of FICO scores. Some are used for credit cards, while others are used for car loans or mortgages. And like any good piece of technology, the formulas are updated frequently — with versions including FICO Score 8, FICO Score 9 and so on — which is yet another reason scores vary so much.
At last! Here’s the info you’ve been waiting for: where to find your free FICO score.
The first place you should look is your credit card company. Many offer free credit scores to cardholders, and a few offer free scores to the general public. If you’re looking for one of your specific scores, you might already have access to it through an existing credit card account or other online service — you may not have to pay for it.
The Discover Credit Scorecard, for example, gives free FICO scores to anyone who signs up for an account on its site. Discover cardholders will get a score based on their TransUnion credit reports, while non-cardholders will get a score based on their Experian report.
|Issuer||Free Credit Score Type||Credit Bureau Used||Who Can Get It|
|American Express||FICO Score 8||Experian||Consumer cardholders|
|American Express||VantageScore 3.0||TransUnion||Anyone|
|Bank of America||FICO Score 8||TransUnion||Consumer cardholders|
|Barclaycard||FICO Score 8||TransUnion||Consumer cardholders|
|Capital One||VantageScore 3.0||TransUnion||Anyone|
|Chase||FICO Score 8||Experian||Chase Slate cardholders|
|Citi||FICO Bankcard Score 8||Equifax||Consumer cardholders (select cards)|
|Discover||FICO Score 8||TransUnion for cardholders; Experian otherwise||Anyone|
|Wells Fargo||FICO Bankcard Score 2||Experian||Account holders|
You’ll see that Capital One offers a VantageScore rather than a FICO score. The three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — pooled their resources to create this new score in 2006. And though more and more lenders are using this newer type of score, it’s still not as popular as FICO.
We’ll update this table as we find out more about each credit card issuer’s free score offerings.
How to Improve Your Credit Scores
Unhappy with your FICO credit scores? Here are a few ways you can improve them:
- Pay off debt: One of the key factors in your credit scores is how much of your available credit you’re using. This is called your credit utilization ratio, and the lower it is, the better.
- Keep old cards open: Though it might seem counterintuitive, you don’t want to close out a credit card once you pay it off. In addition to increasing your credit utilization ratio, it’ll also lower the average age of your accounts. A longer credit history — and higher average age — will help your scores go up.
- Make all your payments on time: Payment history is super important to your credit scores. If you have trouble remembering your due dates, set up automatic withdrawals or create calendar reminders. Learn when and how much you should pay here.
- Check your scores regularly: If you’ve learned one thing from this post, we hope it’s to check your credit scores and reports at least once per year, or more often if you’re applying for new credit. Not only will you catch errors, you’ll also be able to spot signs of identity theft.
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