A credit score is a three-digit number calculated by running information on your credit report through an algorithm to determine how creditworthy you are.
Lenders use credit scores to decide how likely a consumer will repay their debts on time. There are hundreds of credit scoring models in existence, though the FICO® Score is perhaps the most common. The higher your credit scores, the better the offers you are likely to receive from lenders, typically high dollar amounts at lower interest rates.
There are four ways to check your credit scores:
- Check with your credit card issuer or lender. Many credit card and car loan companies offer a complimentary credit score that you can check by logging into your account online or on your monthly statement. Typically, you have to opt-in to receive the number.
- Visit a free credit scoring website. There are numerous websites like freecreditscore.com that offer free scores; just pay attention to the terms before you sign up. Some free sites offer educational scores that aim to give you an understanding of how you're doing credit-wise but are not scores actually used by lenders.
- Buy your credit scores. You can purchase your scores from the three consumer credit reporting agencies, including Experian—which provides you with your score based on the FICO® Score 8 model, unless otherwise noted. You also have access to credit score tracking over time, information about the factors on your credit report that influence your score, and credit monitoring and alerts when something in your credit file changes.
- Visit a nonprofit credit counselor. Credit counselors can often pull your scores for free and go over the details with you. To find one, check with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Focus on the Context of the Score
Because there are so many credit scoring models in existence, you likely have multiple scores, and if you pull your score from one site or product, it will likely be slightly different from one you find through another product.
So don't get hung up on one particular score or even the exact number, advises Susan Henson, a credit scoring expert at Experian. Instead, pay attention to what range you fall in. Most websites or card issuers will offer some context behind the score in addition to the number.
The context will typically include information about where you stand and whether your score is poor, fair, good, very good or exceptional. You will also likely find information about why your score is what it is. (See also: What Are the FICO Scoring Ranges?)
"A score range can help you anticipate, in broad terms, how a lender will view your credit standing and what types of credit products you are likely to be approved for," says Henson.
How to Check Your Credit Report
If you pull multiple credit scores, the exact numbers may be different, but they should generally all fall within the same range. According to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau study, the scores produced by different scoring models provided similar information for a majority of consumers. That's because while different credit scores use unique models to calculate your score, they all rely on your credit report—and there's only one of those.
If two scores vary wildly, that's an indication that you might want to check your credit reports to uncover any discrepancies.
You can get your credit report from many sources, including Experian. Get your free credit report from Experian, and you can get your FICO® Score, too. You can also get one free credit report every 12 months from Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion at AnnualCreditReport.com.
It's important to review your credit reports before you apply for a loan or credit card in case there is anything that needs to be cleared up; negative information in your credit report can drop your credit scores, and you want your credit scores to be the best they can be before applying for credit. If you see incorrect information on one of your credit report, initiate a dispute at that credit reporting agency.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.