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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). 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.

According to FICO, the minimum scoring criteria is as follows:

  1. At least one credit account opened for six months or more.
  2. At least one credit account that has been reported to one of the three major credit bureaus within the past six months.

It is important to note that you can meet these requirements with just one account or several.

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 is the most important factor that makes up your score. 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): This represents how long you’ve been using credit is another key role to building your credit score. 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 different types of credit accounts under your name also play a key role. 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.Although, there are some cards aimed towards people with no credit history.

Many banks and credit card issuers give you access to free credit scores. 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.

The bottom line

Your credit score doesn’t start at zero, but no matter how you choose to build a credit history, it’s imperative that you start off on the right foot. You can establish good credit by selecting the right credit card to meet your financial goals and habits, making on-time payments, keeping your balances low and tracking your credit history as it grows.

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.

Written by
Nicole Dieker
Personal Finance Contributor
Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012—and a personal finance enthusiast since 2004, when she graduated from college and, looking for financial guidance, found a battered copy of Your Money or Your Life at the public library. In addition to writing for Bankrate, her work has appeared on CreditCards.com, Vox, Lifehacker, Popular Science, The Penny Hoarder, The Simple Dollar and NBC News. Dieker spent five years as writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money. Dieker also teaches writing, freelancing and publishing classes and works one-on-one with authors as a developmental editor and copyeditor.
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