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The credit score you see and the one your lender uses may be different for several reasons.
To start, it's important to understand that credit scores are based on the information found in credit reports maintained by the three major credit bureaus. If those reports differ, a credit score based on one report may not be identical to a score based on another.
Another reason the scores differ might be because there's more than one credit scoring model, and there's no guarantee the one you're using to check your own credit is the same one your lender relies on. Plus, each model regularly releases updated versions of the scores it produces—and there are score versions that are specific to certain industries. For example, when you check your credit score for free, you might receive a score calculated using the VantageScore® 3.0 model, but your mortgage lender might use the FICO® Score☉ 2 to assess your credit.
We'll explain more about the differences between credit scoring models below, as well as other reasons your score may differ. What's important to remember, though, is that the same positive behavior—paying bills on time, limiting credit card debt, maintaining a long credit history—will typically lead to a good or excellent credit score across the different models and versions and credit bureaus.
Here's what you need to know about the various credit scores you have, and which are most important to keep an eye on when you're seeking new credit.
What Credit Score Do Lenders Use?
The two main companies that produce and maintain credit scoring models are FICO® and VantageScore. Lenders most commonly use the FICO® Score to make lending decisions, and in particular, the FICO® Score 8 is the most popular version for general use. If you've taken an interest in the health of your credit and how lenders will view it, checking your FICO® Score 8 is a smart place to start.
There are, however, many types of FICO® Scores. FICO® has released updates to its basic score over the years, and the FICO® Score 10 is the most recent. Mortgage lenders most often use older versions to assess applicants: the FICO® Score 2, 4 or 5.
There is also the FICO® Bankcard Score (used to make credit card lending decisions) and the FICO® Auto Score (used to make auto lending decisions). If you know you're interested in a certain type of credit, it could be worthwhile to check beforehand the specific score type you know a lender will look at.
Why Do I Have So Many Different Credit Scores?
In addition to multiple score models and versions, there are also three credit bureaus—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax—that collect the information your credit scores are based on.
FICO® develops scores specific to each bureau, so your FICO® Score 8 may be slightly different depending on the bureau. VantageScore, on the other hand, was developed cooperatively by the three credit bureaus, so scores that use the same VantageScore iteration will be the same no matter which agency you use.
There are some differences in the way VantageScore and FICO® calculate your score. For example, you likely will not have a FICO® Score if you don't have a credit account that's older than six months. You can get a VantageScore, however, if you have at least one account in your name—no matter its age.
Additionally, while both scoring models heavily weight credit utilization, or the amount of credit card debt you carry relative to your credit limit, the VantageScore 4.0 also takes into account your utilization over time. So if you usually pay your credit card bill in full—even if you carried a balance a few times—you'll be given credit for typically bringing your utilization to 0%. The most common versions of the FICO® Score, on the other hand, will assess your credit utilization based only on the time when your score was checked. The FICO® Score 10 T model does consider utilization over time, but it's yet to be widely adopted by lenders.
Depending on the type of score, the scoring range may also differ. General FICO® Scores range from 300 to 850, and so do VantageScore 3.0 and 4.0 scores. But industry-focused FICO® Scores range from 250 to 900, and VantageScores 1.0 and 2.0 range from 501 to 990. Even though the precise number of the ranges might vary, in practice, the differences aren't major: The higher your credit score, the better.
How to Improve Your Score Before Applying for Credit
A tried-and-true way to establish excellent credit is to pay all your bills on time, across each of your credit accounts. This isn't a fast way to improve a credit score, but done consistently, it will strengthen your scores no matter the model or version you look at. Paying off debt balances, if possible, will also lower your credit utilization, similarly improving your score.
If you're applying for credit very soon, avoid other hard inquiries in the weeks leading up to the application, as these could cause a temporary drop in your score. Also avoid closing old credit accounts—as long as they're not expensive or unwieldy to maintain—so your scores benefit from the account's credit limit and long credit history. Lenders will be glad to see that you've been able to responsibly manage an account over an extended period of time.
Understanding Your Many Credit Scores
There are some cases, such as when applying for a mortgage, when it's a good idea to check a specific score model and version. But in general, the differences among your credit scores are minor, and practicing smart credit habits will yield benefits across the many scores that belong to you.