Experian, TransUnion and Equifax now offer all U.S. consumers free weekly credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com.
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A credit report is a record of your history managing and repaying debt, including credit cards, loans and other bills. Lenders, financial institutions and others may use information from your credit reports to help them verify your identity and calculate the risk of doing business with you. Learning how to read and review your own credit report can be an important part of managing your personal finances.
What Is a Credit Report?
A credit report is a consumer-friendly presentation of data stored in the databases at one of the three major consumer credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion or Equifax). The credit bureaus often have similar information about you in their respective systems, but each bureau organizes the data differently, and each formats its credit report in its own way.
What Information Is in a Credit Report?
The information in your credit reports may be organized and presented differently depending on where you get a copy of your credit report. We have a guide that's specific to understanding your Experian credit report, but here is a general overview of what you may find in each section of your credit report from any of the three bureaus.
Your personal information doesn't impact your credit scores, but it can be important for connecting you with your credit accounts and verifying your identity. Typically, information in the categories listed below will appear if you've provided it to a creditor.
- Names: Your full name, along with any variations of your name that you've used on credit accounts, will appear in this section. For example, your name with or without a middle name or initial, nicknames and surnames that you used prior to marriage or divorce.
- Addresses: Your current address and previous addresses.
- Phone numbers: Current and previous phone numbers.
- Social Security numbers: Your Social Security number (SSN) and possible variations that creditors have reported to the bureau. The credit bureau may mask part or all of the SSN to help protect consumers from identity theft.
- Date of birth: Your credit report may list your entire date of birth or just the year.
- Joint applicants: The names of any persons with whom you've jointly applied for credit in the past.
- Employers: The names of current and past employers.
- Personal statements: You can add a general statement to your credit report if, for example, you want to give context for why you fell behind on payments. Account-specific statements can also be added.
Your credit report may separate your accounts into several groups.
- Open revolving accounts: Your revolving credit accounts include credit cards and personal lines of credit.
- Open installment accounts: Your installment loan accounts include auto, personal, student and home loans.
- Closed accounts: These can include paid-off or defaulted loans, and credit card accounts closed by you or the card issuer. The closed accounts may be separated into closed revolving and installment accounts. Either way, they can stay in your credit report for up to 10 years if the account was in good standing when it was closed.
- Account details: Each account can also have relevant information that the creditor shares with the credit bureau, such as the opening date, the account's terms, the reported balance and your payment history.
Credit inquiries are records of when your credit report was accessed. Your credit report may break these into two groups:
- Hard inquiries: Hard inquiries are requests to check your credit report associated with applications for new credit, such as a loan or credit card.
- Soft inquiries: Soft inquiries usually occur when your credit report is checked for other reasons, such as for credit prequalification or when you check your own credit. They may also be a result of companies you already have a relationship with checking your credit.
Creditors may assign or sell past-due accounts to collection departments or agencies. When this happens, the creditor may close the original account, and the new collections account can appear in a different part of your credit report.
Each collection account may tell you:
- When the collection account was opened
- Whether it belongs to a collections department, agency or attorney
- The original creditor's name
- The original amount due and the current balance
- The collector's contact information
Collection accounts can stay in your credit report for up to seven years after the original delinquency date for the account. The original delinquency date doesn't change when the account is sent to collections or sold to a new debt collector.
The only public records that appear in credit reports are bankruptcy filings. If you filed for bankruptcy, you may see the details of the filing, such as the court, type of bankruptcy and original filing date.
How Is a Credit Report Created?
The credit bureaus have their own databases with information about consumers, and their own systems for using this information to create credit reports. However, at a high level, it works like this:
- Creditors send the credit bureaus information. Most of the information in credit reports comes from credit card issuers, lenders and other organizations that voluntarily send information and updates to the credit bureaus. These companies are called "data furnishers" in the context of credit reporting.
- Credit bureaus collect public records. The credit bureaus may work with vendors or have other processes to collect public records.
- Eligible organizations request a credit report. Your credit report can't be sent to just anyone. Companies need to register with the credit bureaus and have a "permissible purpose" to request a consumer's credit report.
- The credit bureau creates the credit report. When a credit bureau receives a request for a credit report, it generates a report using information in its database.
Your credit reports may differ across the three credit bureaus because creditors sometimes only report information to one or two credit bureaus (they're not required to report to all three). Additionally, if you use a feature like Experian Boost®ø, the information you add will only appear in your Experian credit report.
Why Is Your Credit Report Important?
Your credit report is important for many reasons.
- It's the basis for your credit scores.
- Creditors may make decisions based on what's in your credit report.
- Employers, landlords and insurance companies may check your credit report or credit-based scores.
- Your personal information can be used to verify your identity for many products and services.
Reviewing your credit reports can help you quickly detect and resolve suspicious activity. For example, the appearance of unexpected hard credit inquiries, new loans or new credit cards might indicate fraudulent activity.
When Should You Get a Credit Report?
Regularly checking your credit reports from each of the credit bureaus can be important for detecting fraud and as part of routine financial maintenance. Consider checking your credit at these times:
- Several months before applying for a new loan or credit card: Review your reports carefully to make sure you recognize all the listed accounts and that the balance and payment information matches your financial records. You have the right to file a dispute to address any information in your credit report that you believe is inaccurate.
- At least once every year: Even if you're not applying for new credit, you may want to check your credit reports annually to look over the information. Timing these checks with another event—like the New Year holiday or your birthday—can help you stick to a routine.
You can also check your credit reports more often or use credit monitoring to get notified of significant changes in your credit reports.
How to Check Your Credit Report
There are many wants to check your credit reports, including several free options:
- Go to the bureau's website: Experian offers a free membership that gives you access to your Experian credit report with monthly updates, a FICO® Score☉ based on the report and many additional features.
- AnnualCreditReport.com: You can request free weekly copies of each of your credit reports on AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Third-party tools: Some creditors, banks and third-party services give customers access to one or several of their credit reports. However, there may be a one-time or subscription fee.
You also may be eligible for additional free credit reports if you:
- Are denied credit, employment or insurance based on your credit information
- Receive public assistance
- Are unemployed and looking for a job
- Believe there's an error in your report due to fraud
- Place a fraud alert in your credit file
If you're having trouble requesting your credit report online, perhaps because you have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), you can also mail requests for free copies of your credit reports to the credit bureaus.
What to Look for When You Review Your Credit Report
You may want to review each section of your credit report for signs of fraud and errors.
- Personal information: Slight misspellings could be due to typos, but look for errors, such as a completely unfamiliar address, that may indicate identity theft or fraud.
- Your accounts: Look over your report for credit accounts that you didn't open. Keep in mind, the creditor's name might appear differently than the familiar brand name. For example, a Chase credit card might be listed as JPMCB, which stands for JPMorgan Chase Bank
- Account statuses and payment histories: Double-check that the current account status is correct and that there aren't any errors in your accounts' payment histories.
- Hard inquiries: Look for hard inquiries that don't align with your credit applications because that could be a sign of fraud. There might be soft inquiries that you don't recognize, but that's not uncommon because some organizations can run soft credit checks without your permission.
Your credit report also might list your overall credit utilization ratio and the utilization ratio on each of your revolving credit accounts. A low utilization rate is best for your credit scores. Paying down credit card balances and making credit card payments early could help lower your utilization.
Monitor Your Credit for Free
Although regularly checking your credit reports may be a good idea, ongoing credit monitoring can be an easier way to keep an eye on your credit. Experian's free credit monitoring can highlight recent changes in your credit report and explain why they may be important. Members also receive real-time alerts when there are significant changes in their credit report, such as a new hard inquiry, new account or updated personal information.