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. It works as a kind of report card lenders and other companies view when deciding to do business with you.
Included in your credit report is a historical record of how and when you pay your bills, how much debt you have, and how long you have been managing credit accounts.
Lenders and other companies may use your credit report to learn more about your previous borrowing experience, which helps them make decisions about granting you credit. Credit reports are also used to calculate your credit scores, verify your identity and for other purposes within certain limits defined under federal law.
What Is in a Credit Report and How Do You Read It?
A credit report is a readable presentation of the data stored in your electronic credit file at one of the three national credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion or Equifax). The information stored in your credit file at each bureau is essentially the same, but each bureau organizes the data differently, and each formats its credit report in its own way.
Your Experian credit report is divided into four sections:
- Your full name, along with any variations of it you may have used when seeking or using credit (with or without a middle name or initial, nicknames, or surnames used prior to marriage or divorce, for instance).
- Your current address and other addresses you've provided when opening credit accounts.
- The names of current and past employers.
- The names of any persons with whom you've jointly applied for credit in the past.
This section lists:
- All your open loans and credit card accounts and up to seven years of monthly payment records for each, noting whether each payment was made on time or past its due date. For late payments, your credit report will indicate if they were 30-, 60- or 90-days past due.
- Closed accounts, including paid-off loans and credit card accounts closed by either you or the card issuer, stay on your credit report for 10 years after they're closed and show up to seven years of payment history.
- If applicable, accounts turned over to collections, property foreclosures and repossessions of vehicles or other merchandise as a result of non-payment will also be recorded in this section of a credit report.
This section of your credit report tracks companies' requests for your credit report or a credit score, and they remain on your credit report for up to two years. Experian reports group inquiries into two sections:
- Hard inquiries are requests to check your credit associated with applications for new credit, such as a loan or credit card.
- 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 status.
If you file for bankruptcy, the details of the filing and its status (open, closed, etc.) will appear in this section of your credit report, where they will remain for seven or 10 years depending on the type of bankruptcy. If there's no relevant information to include, your Experian credit report may not have a Public Records section.
How Is a Credit Report Made?
The national credit bureaus maintain millions of consumers' credit histories, based on information supplied by lenders and other entities. Each file includes records relevant to a person's history borrowing and making monthly payments. For identity verification purposes, your credit file also contains information such as your current name and any other names you may have used in the past, current and past addresses and your date of birth.
A credit file is not set in stone—it's a living and breathing record that's constantly being updated with the latest information being provided to the bureaus by your lenders and other institutions. When a company such as a lender, insurance provider or potential employer requests to check your credit, the bureau pulls the contents of your credit file that are relevant and disclosable by law to the company, and packages it in an organized document known as a credit report.
Your credit report does not contain all the data in your credit file—the credit bureaus have your full payment history on record, for instance, but are typically authorized to release only records for the last seven years. Your credit report also cannot be provided to just anyone; there are strict limits on the types of companies that can check your credit and when they are allowed to do so.
The companies that supply information to the bureaus are not legally required to, but most do report on the status of accounts to one or all three credit bureaus every month. Experian maintains credit reports for more than 220 million consumers in the U.S.
Why Is Your Credit Report Important?
The data in your credit report is the raw material used to create credit scores, important numbers that can have a big financial impact on your life.
If your credit report shows a long history of on-time payments, it may mean you have higher credit scores, which will help you get credit cards and loans on more favorable terms. Conversely, late payments, bankruptcy and similar marks on your credit reports can lead to lower credit scores and make it harder for you to get approved for credit cards and loans, or cause a lender to charge a higher interest rate.
In addition, a credit report can reveal unauthorized credit activity associated with identity theft. Credit inquiries and new loan or credit accounts you're unaware of can indicate fraudulent activity. Reviewing your credit reports regularly can help you detect suspicious activity and resolve it more quickly.
When Should You Get a Credit Report?
It's a good idea to check your credit reports two to three months before making a major credit application, such as for a home mortgage or car loan. Review your reports carefully to make sure you recognize all listed accounts and the balance and payment information matches your financial records. If there is anything on your credit report that you believe is inaccurate, you can file a dispute to correct it.
It is also a good practice to review your credit report from each of the credit reporting agencies at least once a year. Associating credit report checks with another event in your life—like the New Year holiday or your birthday—can help you remember. You can get a free credit report directly from Experian every 30 days and a free report every 12 months from each of the three national credit bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com. (Through April 2021, you can get a free credit report each week from the three credit bureaus from AnnualCreditReport.com.)
Under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, you also qualify for additional free credit reports if you are denied credit, employment or insurance on the basis of your credit information. To take advantage of this, contact the company that denied you service and request the name and contact information of the credit bureau from which it obtained your information. Contact that bureau within 60 days using the information provided to obtain your free credit report.
What to Look for in a Credit Report
When you examine your credit report, it's a good idea to to do the following:
- Be certain you recognize all the accounts listed on your report. If not, get in touch with the lender listed for that account to find out what is happening and to check for the possibility of identity theft.
- Make sure the account status information is correct for your accounts. If it is not, start by calling the lender to ask about the discrepancy, then initiate a dispute.
- Check the credit utilization ratio on each revolving credit account. To do this, divide the reported balance for each by its credit limit, then multiply by 100 to get a percentage. You also can calculate an overall utilization ratio by dividing the sum of all your balances by the sum of all their credit limits. Remember to keep your utilization ratio below 30% on individual accounts and overall.
How Information in Your Credit Report Affects Your Credit Scores
Except for your personal information, everything listed in your credit reports has the potential to affect your credit scores, with payment history and credit utilization being the two most important factors.
Lenders like to see a healthy combination of well managed accounts, such as credit cards, an auto loan and a mortgage, so a good credit mix can positively affect your credit score as well.
Your credit report can help you understand information that affects your credit scores, and can be the basis of a plan for credit-score improvement.