Key takeaways

  • FICO defines a "fair" credit score as between 580 and 699
  • VantageScore places it between 601 and 660.
  • Credit scores are based on information from your credit reports.
  • Credit cards and loans are available if you have a fair credit score, but you won’t have as many options as a borrower with good or excellent credit.

Picture this: You apply for a credit card or auto loan, only to be declined. Perplexed, you examine your free credit report from the bank and learn that your credit score is classified as “fair.” That doesn’t sound so bad, but you were still declined. So, what is a fair credit score, and what does it mean for you?

From a numbers viewpoint, a fair credit score labels you as a riskier borrower than those with good or excellent credit but not as risky as those with poor or very poor credit. You’re smack in the middle. That means there are certain credit products you can use — and others you can’t.

However, there are steps you can take to improve your credit score. Boosting your credit score can, in turn, improve your financial “street cred” with lenders and credit card companies. Here’s what you need to know about fair credit scores.

How credit scores are defined

Your credit score is a three-digit number is a picture of your financial health and history in handling loans and credit credits. It also tells lenders, employers, utility companies, landlords and mortgage brokers the following:

  • How much credit you have, and how long you’ve had it
  • How much of that credit you use
  • How often you make on-time payments

Analytics companies Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) and VantageScore create models to analyze the data from the three credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and Transunion. Lenders can use those models to boil down that information to three-digit credit scores that fall into the following categories and ranges:


Exceptional 800+
Very Good 740 to 799
Good 670 to 739
Fair 580 to 699
Poor Below 579



Excellent 781 to 850
Good 661 to 780
Fair 601 to 660
Poor 500 to 600
Very Poor 300 to 399

What a fair credit score means

A fair credit score ranges from 580 to 699 for FICO to 601 and 660 for VantageScore. From FICO’s viewpoint, “fair” means “not poor.” From the VantageScore perspective, “fair” is classified as “average.”

From your lender’s position, a fair credit score is also known as “subprime.” Subprime might sound alarming to people who experienced the subprime mortgage disaster and the Great Recession of 2007–2009.

However, your credit score has nothing to do with underwater mortgages or failed housing markets. In this case, “subprime” means lenders or credit card companies might consider you a higher risk to repay a loan than someone with a good, very good or exceptional credit score. Subprime means your credit score is lower than someone with good (or prime) credit.

Even so, a fair credit score doesn’t mean you can’t access credit cards or loans. There are available options. You might pay upfront fees or higher interest rates for these financial products.

On the positive side, once you obtain those credit cards or loans and prove you can pay them off promptly, you can bump your FICO and VantageScore numbers to a higher level. Once your credit score falls into one of the higher categories, lenders and credit card companies are more willing to extend credit to you because they consider you less of a risk.

Available products for fair credit scores

One important step to improve your financial credibility with lenders is demonstrating that you can pay off credit cards and loans responsibly. The next step is to check out offerings from Visa, Mastercard and Discover, all of which offer credit cards to those with a fair credit score.

As you explore your options, you’ll find several different types of credit available.

Secured credit cards: cash-backed for building credit

A secured credit card provides you credit backed by — or secured with — a cash deposit. That deposit represents a line of credit that lets you buy goods and services. When you use those funds, you pay them back.

In many cases, once you prove you can pay what you owe promptly, the credit card company might give you access to unsecured credit with a low credit limit after a few months and return your deposit. The longer you hold on to that card and make on-time payments, the higher that credit limit could climb.

Because a deposit backs it, a secured card can provide better approval odds if you have fair credit.

Unsecured credit cards: credit without the security deposit

Unsecured credit cards don’t require collateral from you in the form of a cash deposit. The issuer determines your credit limit based on — you guessed it — your credit score.

Unsurprisingly, few unsecured credit cards are available to those with fair credit. Those available generally come with higher annual fees and interest rates, fewer rewards and lower credit limits.

Personal loans: consolidation and credit improvement

A personal loan is an installment loan. In other words, it’s money you receive in a lump sum and pay back through agreed-upon fixed amounts over a specified period. Applying for a personal loan with a fair credit score can help improve your numbers, especially if you make consistent, on-time payments. Such loans can help consolidate other debt you might have or handle sudden emergencies.

Personal loans are available from online lenders, banks and credit unions. If you opt for an online lender, be sure it’s a legitimate lender by making sure it’s registered to do business in your state, has a physical address and gets decent reviews on third-party review sites.

While personal loans can help improve your credit score, you may face high upfront costs and interest rates if you have a fair credit score.

Credit builder loans: boosting your score and savings

A credit builder loan is similar to a personal loan, but you don’t receive that lump-sum payment upfront. Instead, the lender puts that lump sum into a designated account, and you pay the lender a pre-determined amount every month. The lender reports those payments to the three credit bureaus.

When you’ve reached the end of your repayment term, you can access the total balance (less fees or interest rates charged by the lender).

How to improve your credit score

There are additional ways to boost your credit score from fair to good and above.

Ensure on-time payments of all bills

A good part of your FICO score is based on your ability to pay things on time. At 35% of your credit score, timely payments are the most important factor for building good credit.

This doesn’t just mean credit card or personal loan repayments. It also means paying all your bills on their due dates, including your cell phone, utilities, rent or mortgage.

While mortgage payments are always reported to the credit bureaus, not all rent expenditures are. Some landlords are enrolled with a rent-reporting service, which does report these payments, but most aren’t. Your utility payments aren’t typically reported, either.

However, if you pay those bills late or not at all, that can be reported. Those late payments or delinquencies can lead to a red mark on your credit reports and drag down your credit score.

Pay down credit card balances

Your credit card utilization ratio (CUR) also exerts a large influence on your credit score. The CUR is how much you owe on your credit cards. FICO weights your CUR as 30% of your credit score, while VantageScore dubs it “highly influential.” This is because higher utilization could indicate that you’re over-extended.

How high is too high? FICO likes a CUR below 30% of your total credit limit. Some financial experts suggest a sub-10% CUR is the path to the best possible credit score.

Monitor your credit reports

Credit report information comes from the three credit bureaus and details your credit history, providing an overview of your financial activities and history. That information is also what FICO and VantageScore use to generate your three-digit credit score.

Thanks to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you can obtain your free credit report from all three bureaus annually at It’s often available more often too.

Keeping an eye on your credit reports also means you can pinpoint mistakes or errors. For example, if you find an unauthorized hard credit inquiry, you should take the necessary steps to remove it from your credit report. You can dispute errors on your own or use a credit repair company. Removing inaccurate negative information could boost your credit score sooner rather than later.

Next steps

A fair credit score opens avenues to improving your financial profile and prospects. It lets you take advantage of certain credit cards and loans to demonstrate that you can handle credit and debt responsibly.

Moving from fair to good status or higher also means taking the necessary steps to keep your credit card utilization rate within reasonable bounds and pay bills on time. Consistent attention to these activities and regular credit report monitoring can help build your status as a responsible borrower in the eyes of lenders, landlords, employers, utility companies and more.