Beginner’s guide to credit reports


When you’re preparing for a major purchase like a house, a car, or even renting an apartment, your credit report will likely come up in conversation. And it can be a little nerve-wracking to have all of your financial history in one place.

You may wonder what a credit report is, where the information comes from and why it is important. Here’s what industry experts have to say.

What is a credit report?

Think of your credit report as your financial health history. This is a statement that includes detailed information about your current credit status and your credit history. All of this information is voluntarily submitted by banks, credit unions, debt collectors and credit card issuers to one or more of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, TransUnion. This recorded information is then used by lenders, potential landlords, and even future bosses to determine if they want to lend you money, offer a line of credit, approve your rental application, and more.

“Whether you’re applying for a new credit card, a loan, or a mortgage, a lender will review your credit report to assess the likelihood that you’ll pay off your debts as agreed in the future,” says Rod Griffin, senior director of education public and advocacy for Experian. Lenders use the information in your credit report to decide whether or not to extend credit and to determine the interest rate and terms of the offer.

What does a credit report include?

Each of the major credit bureaus can provide you with a credit report, but some may offer a more comprehensive report than others. It is up to the lenders to decide how much they share with these agencies and with which agencies they share information. Even so, your reports will still be broken down the same way.

Here is the information you can expect to see on your credit report:

  • Personally Identifiable Information (PII): This includes identifying information such as your full name, date of birth, social security number, phone numbers, current and previous addresses, and an overview of your work history. Each time you review your credit report, you should verify that all of this information is correct. “Constantly reading your credit reports is one of the foundations of healthy credit and a good way to help detect potential identity theft,” says Margaret Poe, credit education manager at consumption at TransUnion. A simple misspelling in your name or an incorrect digit in your Social Security number can cause your credit information to be confused with someone else’s, which could seriously hurt your credit score.
  • Accounts Payable: Lenders share information with reporting agencies about the number of accounts you have open, types of accounts, your balances, and payment history. If you are missing an account, the lender may not have reported that account to the credit reporting agency you requested your report from, or it may be an old account who has completely filed your report, this usually happens after seven to 10 years. However, if you spot an account that you did not open yourself, it could be a sign of credit fraud and should be reported to all bureaus immediately.
  • Credit applications: This happens whenever your credit report is checked after you apply for a new loan, line of credit, rental, or other service. You can expect these inquiries to stay on your credit report for up to two years.
  • Bankruptcies and collections: If you have filed for bankruptcy or have delinquent credit accounts, you can expect your credit report to include this information as well. It will also detail the type of bankruptcy you filed, the filing dates, and the amount and types of debts that were sent to collections.

One number you won’t see on your credit report: your credit score. The three major credit bureaus generally do not include credit scores in credit reports. “People often assume their credit report and credit score are the same, but that’s not the case,” says Griffin. “Your credit score is a three-digit number that is calculated by applying a credit score formula to information in your credit report.”

If you want to access your score, you can usually do so through your credit card company, your loan statement, or an online credit scoring service.

Where to get a copy of your credit report

Generally, you can request a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every 12 months through Annualcreditreport.com. The three major credit bureaus are currently offering free weekly online credit reports until December 2023 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Equifax is also offering everyone in the United States six free credit reports a year through 2023 through its website.

Once you have requested your report, your request should be processed and you should receive your report within 15 days. It may take less time if you request your report online, or you may experience delays if the credit reporting agency needs more information to verify your identity.

Pro Tip: You don’t have to request all three reports at the same time. In fact, you can spread out these requests so that you can monitor your credit report throughout the year.

You can still get a copy of your credit report once you’ve already requested your three free copies, but you’ll likely have to pay a fee. The good news: a credit reporting company is not allowed to charge you more than $13.50 for a credit report.

You can also request an additional free report if…

  • You have received a fraud alert: This is an alert placed on your credit file that tells lenders and credit card companies that you may be a victim of fraud or identity theft.
  • You were refused credit, insurance or a job: This is called an “adverse action”. When this happens, you will have 60 days to request your free report from the reporting agency.
  • Your report is incorrect: If you believe your credit report contains inaccurate information due to fraud, you may be able to request an additional free copy.
  • You are unemployed or receiving social assistance: You may be eligible for a free report if you are unemployed and intend to apply for a job within 60 days of your application date, or if you are a public welfare recipient.

How often should you check your credit report?

Keeping a close eye on your credit report is key to establishing and maintaining a clean financial history and preparing you to hit all of your major money-related milestones.

You can opt for a credit monitoring service to help you keep an eye on your credit report throughout the year: Experian, Capital One and Credit Karma all offer credit monitoring services that alert you to any suspicious changes to your credit report, threats of fraud or identity theft, and more. But it’s essential to check your credit report yourself and carefully review it from top to bottom.

“I suggest checking your credit report at least once a year and at least three to six months before making any major purchases, like a new house or a new car,” says Griffin. “Regularly reviewing your credit report helps you stay informed about what lenders will see when you apply for credit or services. This will help you be prepared when looking for new lines of credit and avoid any financial surprises.

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