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How to improve your credit score

sebastian-anthony
Written by Sebastian Anthony

Your credit score is a numbered rating that CRAs give you, based on the information they hold on your credit file. Knowing how to build your credit score is important if you want to improve your chances of getting approved for credit.

There are three main Credit Reference Agencies (CRA) in the UK: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion (formerly Callcredit). 

These companies create, keep and hold our credit files and will provide this information to prospective lenders, landlords or employers upon request, to help them verify your identity, or determine how likely you are to default on a payment. 

You may discover that your credit score is low. It is very hard to improve your credit score fast or immediately - it will usually take weeks or months to see an improvement. But you can improve your score – and the sooner you start addressing any problems, the better.

How to improve your credit score

To improve your credit score:

  1. Register to vote

  2. Check for errors or fraudulent activity

  3. Always pay credit back on time

  4. Get some credit if you do not have any

  5. End any negative financial associations

  6. Do not apply for too much new credit

  7. Remove defaults, CCJs, or bankruptcies

1. Register to vote

You'll find it very difficult to be approved for credit if you’re not on the electoral roll (electoral register).

Being on the electoral register does not mean you have to actually vote. You just need to register, which you can do online or by post. All tenants in a shared household can apply to be listed on the electoral roll.

If you’re concerned about privacy, you can remove yourself from the open register. You’ll stay on the electoral roll, but you’ll prevent any third parties from being able to buy your personal details.

2. Check for errors or fraudulent activity

Before applying for any form of credit, take the time to look carefully through your credit reports for any mistakes or fraudulent activity.

Mistakes on your credit file

If you spot any mistakes, like an incorrect address, ask the credit reference agency to update your credit file.

There should be no difference between the information held in your credit file and the information you provide on a credit application. Any difference could impact your chances of being approved.

Fraudulent activity on your credit file

Contact the credit reference agency immediately if you see any activity on your credit file that you know you’re not responsible for.

Somebody could be fraudulently using your identity and building up debt which you’ll be liable for.

Make sure the credit reference agency adds a notice of correction to your credit file. This makes it explicitly clear that you were not the one at fault and means your credit score should not be negatively affected.

3. Always pay credit back on time

It’s important to pay back any credit you have on time, every time. That includes loans, credit cards and mortgage repayments.

Consistently paying in full will have a positive effect on your credit score.

Credit card debt

With credit card debt, paying the minimum amount each month is better than missing a payment. But doing it repeatedly will negatively impact your credit score as it suggests you’re spending more than you earn.

If you have lots of smaller debts spread across a number of cards, consider consolidating them onto one 0% balance transfer card. This will stop the debt earning interest (increasing) for a period, during which time you can pay it off.

In a similar way, a 0% money transfer card can help you consolidate personal loans.

Having just one bill to pay will make it easier to keep a close eye on your debt, making it easier to start reducing it. But it is vital to make those payments on time, every time.

4. Get some credit if you do not have any

While it may sound strange, having no credit means it’s hard to prove that you can effectively meet your repayments. A lender has no evidence that you’re responsible with your money and can make your repayments.

Your mobile phone contract and other utility bills can help build up your credit score.

Get an interest-free credit card

An interest-free credit card will do the most to boost your score – but you must pay it off in full, every month.

It is obvious that going over your credit limit or regularly trying to extend it might make you look financially untrustworthy.

But you should also try to keep your credit utilisation (the percentage you use of your credit limit) low. For example, if you have a limit of £2,000 and you use £1,000, your credit utilisation is 50%. 

A lower percentage is viewed positively by many companies and will increase your credit score as a result. Experian recommends keeping your credit utilisation at around 25%.

5. End any negative financial associations

If you currently have, or have had joint credit with another person over the past six years, your credit file will be linked with theirs. This is known as financial association.

It will reflect badly on you if your financial associate cannot meet payments on time and has had issues with credit in the past.

Sadly, it does not work the other way around. If your financial associate has a better credit rating than you, your credit score is not likely to improve because of that association.

Ending a financial association

To end a financial association, you need to close the joint credit product you share with that person. Or move it to an individual account.

You’ll need to contact the credit reference agencies to add a notice of disassociation. This should prevent any of their future activity from having repercussions on your credit file.

6. Don't apply for too much new credit

Each time you apply for credit, it leaves a hard credit check on your file. When credit providers check your credit file, they'll see these hard credit checks. 

You can negatively impact your credit score if you have too many hard credit checks over a short period of time.

If you do not have any credit yet, one or two hard checks will not impact your credit score too much.

But if you already have a few sources of credit, it could be better to make full use of those instead of applying for more.

The impact of hard credit checks fades over time and they are removed from your credit file after two years. In general, the stronger your credit history and credit scores, the less you need to worry about the impact of a single hard credit check.

7. Remove defaults, County Court Judgments (CCJ) or bankruptcies

If you’ve undergone some form of court action, but it happened more than six years ago, this should no longer appear on your file.  However, this is not always an automatic process.

It’s therefore advisable to check with all three CRAs to ensure all record has been removed completely from your file. 

Defaults

If you’ve failed to make payments on an account with a bank, mobile phone or utility company, usually over a 3-6 month period, the lender will close your account. This is known as a default. A default can occur regardless of how much money you owe (it can be just a few pounds).

Defaults are recorded on your credit report and decrease your credit score, making it much harder for you to get credit in the future.

Some lenders will serve a “default notice” asking you to catch up with missing payments. It’s vital to pay that amount immediately to avoid the default happening.

Unless a default was created in error, it will remain on your credit file for six years, regardless of whether you pay off that debt. 

However, you should continue to make any remaining payments as the lender could go on to register a County Court Judgement against you.

County Court Judgment (CCJ)

In some instances of missed payment, the lender might bring a CCJ against you. If you pay what you owe within 30 days of the CCJ being issued, it should not appear on your credit file.

If you do not pay within 30 days, the CCJ will remain on your file for six years. Not only does this look like bad news to lenders, most potential employers check public records for CCJs and bankruptcies, too. 

Reducing the impact of a CCJ or default payment

You can try and reduce the impact of a CCJ by telling credit reference agencies why you missed payments in the first place. 

For example, you may have had a long-term illness or were made redundant. They’ll add a note to your file that lenders will see.

But if you are now able to make repayments, doing so will help improve your score again.

Bankruptcy

If you have had to go to the extreme of declaring yourself bankrupt, that is a very difficult mark on your credit file to remove.

You can try and reduce its impact with consistently good financial behaviour. But you cannot remove it completely for 6 years.

Learn how to buy your first home

What is a credit score?

Your credit score, or credit rating, is a number that credit agencies use to assess your creditworthiness. It's a way of rating your financial behaviour. Lenders will scrutinise it every time you apply for any type of credit, whether you're looking for a mortgage, loan or credit card. 

It’s clear that knowing what’s in your credit file is important, particularly if you are thinking of buying a property, as prospective lenders will carry out credit searches.

Each CRA holds a credit file on you and the higher your number, the more credit-worthy you are deemed to be. Your credit file is a list of your personal and financial records and your past behaviour with credit. 

You can obtain the details of your credit file quite easily, or simply find out your credit score online, for free. However, be warned - as each CRA uses a different system, you will need to do this with each of the agencies.

Credit reference agencies

The three CRAs in the UK record your credit history for the past 6 years in a credit file. Though the information they hold will mostly be the same, each CRA scores you differently:

  • Experian scores you out of 999

  • Equifax scores you out of 700

  • TransUnion scores you out of 710

This means you have more than one number that represents your creditworthiness. 

Some lenders check your credit file with just one agency to assess how risky you are as a borrower. Other lenders may check all three.

But in general, the higher your credit scores, the more likely you are to be approved for credit.

How lenders use credit scores

Although credit scores are a very useful guide for you as a borrower, lenders do not see the actual scores you see when assessing applications.

Lenders apply their own unique algorithms to your credit file data. The weighting and significance given to elements of your credit file will differ from supplier to supplier. The exact details of these algorithms are kept a secret.

What is a bad credit score?

A bad credit score means you might find it more difficult to get credit. That’s because it’s an indication to lenders of problematic financial behaviour, such as a history of being late with, or entirely missing repayments.

The three CRAs each have a different number that they consider to be a bad credit score:

Experian – below 721 (out of 999)

  • 0 to 560 is considered very poor

  • 561 to 720, poor

  • 721 to 880, fair

  • 881 to 960, good

  • 961 to 999, excellent

Equifax – below 380 (out of 700)

  • 0 to 279 is considered very poor

  • 280 to 379, poor

  • 380-419, fair

  • 420 to 465, good

  • 466 to 700, excellent

TransUnion – below 566 (out of 710)

  • 0 to 550 is considered very poor

  • 551 to 565, poor

  • 566 to 603, fair

  • 604 to 627, good

  • 628 to 710, excellent

The key thing to remember is your credit score is a constantly changing thing that can modify with certain types of financial behaviour – and can be improved.

If you're in a lot of debt

If you’re in real financial difficulty and in serious debt, improving your score should not be your priority - first you should get out of debt.

There is plenty of free, impartial help available to you from debt charities like StepChange. There’s no need to go it alone.

How does a credit check work?

When you apply for credit, lenders will look at the information you provide on your application form.

But they will also consider and assess the information found in the credit files that the credit reference agencies hold on you. This is called a credit check.

For this reason, before applying for any credit it’s always advisable to check your credit files so you can see what the lender will see. It’s also vital to make sure that all the information kept on your record is correct and up-to-date.

Application form

Your application will be rejected immediately if the credit issuer finds any differences when comparing it against official records such as the electoral register. It’s crucial that the information you provide is 100% accurate and complete.

Indeed, if your application is rejected at this stage, it’s not always because the lender thinks you’re a financial risk. The lender is just confirming you are who you say you are, as part of their legal obligation to prevent fraud and money laundering.

The specific information requested will depend on the type of credit you are applying for. 

But typically, it will include:

  • Full name - including any previous names

  • Current address - and any previous addresses within the last 3 years

  • Date of birth

  • Contact details

  • Employment status and income

  • Residential status

  • Other credit commitments - credit cards, loans, mobile phones, etc.

The CRAs hold information on your credit behaviour over the past six years in your credit file, which includes:

1. Personal details

The credit reference agencies get your personal details from electoral register records including:

  • Your full name

  • Date of birth

  • Address - and how long you’ve lived at that address

  • Full names of anyone else you live with

  • Your eligibility to vote in the UK

2. Financial associations

It’s important to think very carefully about who you take out joint credit with. 

Lenders will be able to see if you currently have, or have had, shared financial responsibility with someone over the past six years.

If a lender views any of your financial associations as having poor credit, this could have a detrimental effect on your own creditworthiness when you apply for credit.

Your credit score might not change. But the negative association can still affect your chances of securing credit in the future.

3. Hard credit check

A hard credit check occurs when a company makes a complete search of your credit report. Each hard check is recorded, so other companies searching can see you have applied for credit.

Making multiple credit applications in a short space of time could indicate to lenders that you’re desperate for credit. Or that you’ve been turned down for credit in the past.

You will affect your credit score if you apply for more credit, usually following a rejection.

Annoyingly, your file does not show if a lender accepted your credit application so an acceptance will not boost your score. But a rejection will not directly lower your score either.

Soft credit check 

Some companies perform a soft credit check to decide how successful your application would be without conducting a full examination of your credit history. 

You can prevent these searches from appearing on your credit file by using a soft search eligibility checker when applying for credit.

Soft searches leave no mark on your credit file and so have no impact on your credit score.

4. Bankruptcy/County Court Judgments (CCJs)/Court Notices

Any bankruptcy, Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA) filings or court actions are kept on public record.

They’re found on the Insolvency Register and the Register of Judgments, Orders and Fines. Credit reference agencies store all this information too.

5. Fraud

Any recorded fraudulent activity in regard to finances is listed on your credit file.

6. Previous credit behaviour

Banks and other lending institutions provide information about your current and previous behaviour in relation to credit.

Credit includes:

  • Loans

  • Credit cards

  • Mortgages

  • Store credit

Your credit file also includes your history of repaying this credit, including:

  • Whether repayments were made on time

  • Late payments

  • Missed payments

  • Defaulted payments

Check your credit score for free

If you’re taking out credit, or just interested in knowing what is on your files, the good news is that it’s easy to find out – and won’t cost you anything.

Request a Statutory Credit Report

You can apply to each of the CRAs independently to request a Statutory Credit Report. They’re obliged to send it to you for free.

This data is only updated on a monthly basis.

View your credit file and score

For fully up-to-date information, you can view your full credit file from all three of the credit reference agencies for free.

There are also free online services that let you see your credit score and file. These free online services typically update once a month.

If you want more regular updates, consider signing up for a paid subscription service. There is usually a free trial period for 14 to 30 days and you can cancel your subscription if you don't want to carry on using the service.

Coronavirus – update for mortgage borrowers

On 2 June 2020, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) confirmed that homeowners whose finances have been affected by COVID-19 can apply for a three-month extension to their mortgage payment holiday. 

Homeowners unable to make their mortgage payments who have yet to apply for a payment holiday have until 31 October 2020 to do so.

Mortgage payment holidays ease the burden of having to make monthly payments at times when you may be struggling to make ends meet. 

However, it is important to remember that this is not free money – it is simply extending the term of your mortgage by 3 months. Your home loan will continue to build up interest during this time, meaning the total amount you will pay back over the term of your mortgage will be higher.