Key takeaways

  • Your credit score plays a big role in your financial life and it is important to keep track of it
  • You can get a copy of your credit score from the credit reporting bureaus, financial institutions or a nonprofit credit counselor
  • Checking your credit score will alert you about any issues, especially if you are going to apply for a loan, and will not lower your credit score

Finding out your credit score seems like it should be pretty easy, right? After all, there’s that website where you can get your credit reports for free every year. But once you get there you will discover that free credit reports are not the same thing as free credit scores.

Unlike your credit report, you are not entitled by law to a free credit score. Fortunately, there are many ways to obtain your credit score, with or without paying for it.

3 ways to check your credit score

There is more than one way to check your credit score, which is based on the information in your credit reports. You might have to pay for the service, depending on which source you choose.

1. The major credit reporting bureaus

You can purchase your score from the major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — and even directly from FICO. If you buy it from the bureaus, it must be given at a “reasonable cost,” according to the law that established free annual credit reports.

Experian offers a free FICO 8 credit score with its free monitoring service. The price you’ll pay is getting offers for products. As long as you can say “no,” this is a good deal. The other credit bureaus also offer credit monitoring but for a monthly fee, which does include a “free” score.

2. Your card issuer or bank

You may have access to your credit score for free through other means. Several credit card companies offer credit reporting and scoring as a benefit to cardholders. This is usually a free opt-in service.

Card issuer offerings include American Express MyCredit Guide, Citi’s Card Benefits, Capital One’s Credit Wise, Chase’s Credit Journey and Discover’s Credit Scorecard. The services offered by American Express, Capital One and Discover are available to anyone — not just cardholders.

The FICO Open Access Program is another resource for consumers to obtain their score for free. FICO has partnered with more than 200 banks and credit card issuers (as well as auto lenders and mortgage servicers) to offer those partners’ customers free access to their FICO scores. The key here is that you have to be a customer of one of the partners, but you can check with your bank or other lenders to see if this is an option for you. You can also access your VantageScore through a partnership program the credit scoring company has established with some financial institutions to provide your credit score for free.

3. Through a credit counselor

A nonprofit credit counseling agency can help you better manage your debt. If you need financial counseling on dealing with your debts, a credit counselor will help you establish a debt management plan, develop a budget and set up a schedule to pay your debts. These agencies will also help you pull up your credit report and credit score to get a better feel for your financial situation.

Does checking your score hurt your credit?

It’s well and good to check your credit score, but you may be wondering whether your score will be negatively impacted when it is pulled up. This depends on the type of credit inquiry. Checking your credit score yourself will never hurt your score. Doing so is considered a “soft” inquiry (as opposed to a “hard” one) because you are not trying to obtain new credit when you check for yourself.

Of course, you may be checking before you actually apply for credit, but a “hard” inquiry only happens when the lender pulls your credit in order to decide if it is going to extend fresh credit to you. Along the same lines, those offers you get online or in the mail for new credit cards or other financial offerings “based on your good credit” are made using soft inquiries and also do not hurt your score, unless and until you take advantage of one of those offers.

Why checking your credit score matters

Your credit score plays a big role in your financial life and it’s important to keep track of it. Whenever you apply for credit, your lender will look at your credit score to see if you a good prospect for a loan. FICO and Vantage credit scores range from 300 to 850 and the higher your credit score the better. If you have a good credit score, your chances of loan approval will improve.

Your credit score may also impact your employment prospects since some employers will check this information as part of your employment screening. And if you are looking for rental housing, most landlords, especially the bigger ones, will also look into your credit. This gives them a better idea about your financial situation and whether you will be paying your rent reliably.

Another reason to stay on top of your credit score is to make sure that your credit has not been compromised. In case your personal information is compromised, fraudsters could open credit accounts in your name and ring up debt. This would cause your score to drop and checking your credit score will instantly alert you of any issue to follow up on.

Why your credit score may vary

Different credit scoring models will bring up different credit scores for you.

That’s because each scoring model uses its own inputs. Also, the three credit bureaus, which provide input for the credit scoring models, don’t have the same information about each consumer. So credit scores will vary depending on the scoring model and the credit input that goes into generating the score.

If you’re applying for credit in the near future, find out what score the lender will look at so you can check that version out for yourself beforehand. Even though your score will probably not match your lender’s (because they may use a different or specialized version), it should be close enough to give you the confidence that you will be approved.

Frequently asked questions

  • When you check your credit score yourself, it is called a “soft inquiry” and it will not result in your score’s going down. It’s only when a lender pulls up your credit prior to approving you for a loan and makes what’s called a “hard inquiry” that your credit score could go down a bit.
  • It’s a good practice to check your credit score once a year. If you are looking to apply for credit, you could also check your score in advance to make sure that no red flags come up. In case there are issues, you can work to clear them up in advance of applying for credit.

The bottom line

It is to your advantage to keep track of your credit score and there are a variety of ways to access it. You can get it through a credit reporting bureau, your financial institution or a nonprofit credit counselor, for instance. It’s important to keep up with your score since it plays a big role in your financial life. Checking your own score once a year is a good practice and will not cause it to decline. A good credit score starts at a 670 FICO score, and with consistent, responsible credit use, you can build your credit score up to “very good” and even “excellent.”