What credit score do you start with?

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When people start using credit, they begin to build both a credit history and credit score—but what credit score do you start with? If you’ve never applied for a credit card or taken out a loan, do you even have a credit score? If you’re new to credit, what are the best ways to build a good credit score quickly?

Let’s take a look at how credit scores work, including how your first credit score is calculated, how to establish good credit and whether there is such a thing as a “starting credit score.”

What does your credit score start at?

It all depends on how you start using credit. Some people wonder whether the starting credit score is zero, for example, or whether we all start with a credit score of 300 (the lowest possible FICO score) and work our way up from there. The truth is that there’s no such thing as a “starting credit score.” We each build our own unique credit score based on the way we use credit.

If you haven’t started using credit yet, you won’t have a credit score. You begin to build your credit score after you open your first line of credit, such as a credit card or a student loan. At that point, your credit score is determined by the way you use that initial credit account. As lenders report your credit activity to the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), you’ll begin to build a credit file that will be used to determine your starting credit score.

When a lender or landlord performs an inquiry into your credit history, they see a credit score that reflects the way you use your open credit accounts. The key factors include whether you’re making payments on time and how much of your available credit you’re using. If you use your first credit account responsibly, you could establish good credit before you know it. If you miss payments or max out your credit cards, your brand-new credit score could suffer.

What is the starting credit score? That’s the wrong question to ask, since the answer doesn’t technically exist. Instead, ask yourself how you can build the best credit score possible.

How is your credit score calculated?

If you want to build and maintain a good credit score, you need to know how a credit score is calculated. Your FICO credit score is based on the following five factors:

  • Payment history (35 percent): Your history of on-time payments. Even if you can only make the minimum payment on your credit cards, make sure you make it on time.
  • Amounts owed (30 percent): This is your credit utilization. Try to keep the amounts you owe below 30 percent of your available credit. If you have a credit card with a $1,000 credit limit, for example, try to keep your outstanding balance below $300. If your balance gets any higher, do your best to pay it off as quickly as possible.
  • Length of credit history (15 percent): How long you’ve been using credit. If you are new to credit, your credit history isn’t going to be very long—but it’s only a matter of time.
  • Credit mix (10 percent): The types of credit accounts under your name. Your credit score could improve if you have both revolving debt (like credit cards) and installment debt (like loans) in your credit history—but don’t worry if you haven’t taken out any loans yet. You can still establish a good credit score with just credit cards.
  • New credit (10 percent): The last factor of your credit score is based on how often you apply for new credit. Try to wait three to six months between credit card applications to avoid lowering your credit score with too many new credit requests.

What are the FICO credit score ranges?

In addition to understanding how a FICO credit score is calculated, it’s a good idea to know the FICO credit score ranges. FICO scores range from 300 to 850, and are divided into the following categories:

  • Exceptional: 800-850
  • Very Good: 740-799
  • Good: 670-739
  • Fair: 580-669
  • Very Poor: 300-579

Your goal should be to get your FICO score above 670 as quickly as possible. Once you have good credit, you’ll be able to apply for some of today’s best credit cards—plus, it’ll be easier to take out a mortgage, rent an apartment, buy a car, sign up for a new smartphone plan and more.

Can you have a credit score without a credit card?

Is it possible to build credit without a credit card? Yes—but you still need to have at least one line of credit associated with your name. If you take out a student loan or a car loan, for example, those credit accounts become part of your credit history and help establish your starting credit score. You could also build credit by becoming an authorized user on a friend or relative’s credit card, or use a service like Experian Boost to add telecommunications and utility payments to your Experian credit report.

If you don’t have a credit card, where does your credit score start? It all depends on how you use the other credit accounts under your name. If you make on-time payments on your student loan, for example, you’re doing the work of building a positive credit history. If your payments are consistently late, your credit history—and credit score—might not be as good.

How to check your credit score

If you are new to credit, it’s a good idea to check your own credit score before you start applying for additional credit cards or loans. That way, you won’t make the mistake of applying for a credit card designed for people with excellent credit when your own credit is still average.

How do you check your own credit score? Many banks and credit card issuers give you access to free credit scores, so start there. Credit monitoring services provide weekly credit score updates and keep track of potential threats to your credit (like identity theft attempts). You can also access your credit score through certain popular personal finance apps, such as Mint.

Some free credit score services will provide you with a VantageScore instead of a FICO score. VantageScore is one of FICO’s main competitors—and although its scoring system is slightly different than FICO’s, the credit ranges overlap. If you have good credit with VantageScore, you’ll have good credit with FICO.

Best ways to establish credit

If you’re ready to start building credit with a credit card, here are some tips to help you establish good credit as quickly as possible:

Choose the right credit card

The path to good credit begins with a good credit card. If you’ve never had a credit card before, take a look at our list of starter credit cards. These cards are designed for people who are new to credit and can help you build a positive credit history.

If you’re trying to build credit as a college student, you might want to apply for a student credit card. Some student credit cards are designed to reward responsible behavior—a handful offer bonus rewards for students with good grades, for example, while others may increase your cash back rewards when you pay your bill on time.

Make on-time payments

The best way to build credit is by making on-time payments—every time. Since your payment history makes up 35 percent of your credit score, it’s to your advantage to never, ever miss a credit card payment. Want a little extra help? Use mobile alerts to remind you of upcoming payments, or set up credit card autopay to ensure your bill is always paid on time.

Keep your balances low

As you begin to build your credit history, try to keep your credit card balances as low as possible. You might be tempted to use your new credit to make purchases that you might not be able to pay off right away. But carrying a high credit card balance month-to-month could cost you—in both interest charges and credit score points.

Remember, 30 percent of your credit score is based on the amount of credit you’re currently using—so if you’re trying to build good credit, don’t let your balances get too high.

Track your credit history as it grows

There are two ways to keep track of your brand-new credit history. First, get into the habit of checking your credit score on a regular basis. If your bank or credit card issuer doesn’t provide you with a free credit score, consider downloading a free personal finance app or credit monitoring app that gives you access to your score.

You should also request free copies of your credit reports and check each report for inaccuracies or errors. If you find something on your credit report that doesn’t look right—a credit card account that belongs to someone with a similar name, for example—dispute the error with the credit bureaus.

These steps will help you establish a positive credit history, build good credit and set you up for a lifetime of responsible credit card use. There’s no such thing as a starting credit score—but you have a lot of control over where your credit score ends up.