Staying on top of your credit scores and report on a regular basis is a key part of financial health – and you get access to them for free via your credit cards. Here’s why it’s important to check your score on a regular basis and where to do so at no cost.
You know your FICO credit score is an important number. As myFICO.com says, more than 90 percent of U.S. lenders use FICO scores to determine which consumers qualify for loans and credit cards and at what interest rates.
Your three-digit FICO score can determine whether you qualify for a mortgage, can get an auto loan or if banks will approve you for credit cards with the most valuable rewards. That’s why it’s so important to check your FICO credit score regularly. You need to know if your score is a strong one or whether you need to take steps to boost it.
There was a time when the only way to see your FICO scores was to pay the three national credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax or TransUnion. There was no way to see your FICO score for free.
That has changed. Today, banks, credit card providers, credit unions and credit counseling agencies all provide free FICO scores for their customers. MyFICO.com says more than 300 million consumers’ accounts now have access to FICO scores.
See related: FICO’s 5 factors: The components of a credit score
4 things you need to know about FICO credit scores
FICO versus VantageScore: What’s the difference?
Your FICO score is made up of information contained in your three credit reports, one each maintained by Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. These reports list your open credit and loan accounts and whether you have any recent missed or late payments. Reports also list any negative financial judgments, such as recent foreclosures, bankruptcy filings or accounts that have gone into collection.
FICO scores range from a low of 300 to a high of 850. myFICO.com says a good score lies in the range of 670 to 739, while any score of 740 or higher is considered excellent. If your score is in that range, you can expect to qualify for loans and credit cards with the most favorable interest rates.
The most common alternative credit score is the VantageScore, created in a joint effort by TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. This score, too, ranges from 300 to 850, with a score of 700 or higher considered to be good and a score of 750 or higher considered excellent.
Each of the credit bureaus offers a proprietary credit score, too. For instance, Experian offers its PLUS score, which ranges from 330 to 830.
Some sites that offer free credit scores might provide you with a VantageScore, PLUS score or one of the other scores that aren’t FICO scores. Again, this isn’t a negative, as long as you understand the score you are getting and whether lenders do or don’t use it.
Some consumers lack a FICO score. That’s not because they have bad credit, but because they don’t have a long enough credit history. Chris Butler, vice president of marketing at Equifax, said to have a FICO score, consumers must have at least one credit account open for at least six months and have payment activity on that account recorded to the three credit bureaus.
To have a VantageScore, though, consumers only need to have one or more accounts that are just one month old. Consumers also need to have payment activity reported from at least one of these accounts sometime during the last two years, Butler said.
“The VantageScore is bringing in a larger population of people who might not have as deep a credit history,” Butler said.
How to take advantage of free credit scores
And while it’s true that most lenders use the FICO score to determine if you qualify for a loan and at what interest rate, this doesn’t mean that checking your VantageScore is not worthwhile. Butler says this score will give you a good idea of how strong your credit is. And that is a useful tool.
Butler, in fact, recommends that consumers check their credit scores – whether they are looking at their VantageScore, FICO score or a different proprietary score offered by one of the bureaus – each month.
“It’s important that consumers engage with their credit,” Butler said. “Most consumers only think about their credit when they are ready to apply for a mortgage or when they are looking for a loan for a car. But they should be monitoring their credit and looking at their credit reports on a regular basis. That’s part of developing a healthy financial lifestyle.”
“While most lenders will consider your FICO score first and foremost, VantageScore can be just as important because it gives you an overall look at your credit health,” said Joe Cortez, credit expert at Concord, North Carolina-based IDSeal, a credit-monitoring and identity theft protection service. “A lower VantageScore means your FICO score may be subprime. A high VantageScore means your overall credit health is good.”
Kevin Haney, principal and founder of East Brunswick, New Jersey-based A.S.K. Benefit Solutions, said both FICO and VantageScore scoring models use the same source data to generate their scores, the credit reports maintained by TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. Both scores are also effective ways for lenders to predict the future financial behavior of consumers.
Because of this, Haney said, FICO scores are not superior to VantageScores. The big difference between the scores? The vast majority of lenders use FICO to make lending decisions. That’s why consumers typically focus on their FICO score instead of other alternative credit scores.
You need to know whether your credit card or bank is providing you with a FICO credit score – the one most commonly used by mortgage, auto, student loan and personal lenders – or one of these other proprietary scores. It’s not that the other scores are useless. They can still give you an idea of how strong your overall credit history is, but they’re not the same scores that lenders typically use when deciding whether you qualify for a credit card or loan.
If you want to know how likely you are to qualify for a loan or credit card, make sure the free credit score you are viewing is truly a FICO score.
See related: FICO scores vs. ‘educational scores’
Where to get your free FICO credit scores
Thanks to the FICO Score Open Access program, you can get your “real” FICO scores free from more than 200 financial institutions, including banks, credit card providers, auto lenders and mortgage servicers.
- Some of the bigger companies that offer free FICO scores through this program include Bank of America, Barclaycard, Citi, Discover, HSBC, PNC Bank, Sallie Mae, SunTrust, Wells Fargo and UnionBank.
- Several credit and financial counseling agencies also belong to the FICO Score Open Access program, including Ariva, CCLConnect, DebtHelper, HeartlandAlliance, Operation Hope and Springboard to Opportunities.
- For a complete list of financial institutions and counseling agencies that provide free FICO scores through the program click here.
Major credit card providers that offer free credit scores
- American Express provides a free credit score, updated weekly, to anyone who enrolls in its free MyCreditGuide. You don’t have to be an American Express cardholder to sign up. The program provides the VantageScore 3.0 credit score by TransUnion.
- Bank of America provides a monthly FICO score from TransUnion to cardholders for free.
- Barclaycard customers get free access to their FICO score.
- Capital One offers anyone, not just cardholders, its CreditWise service. This will give you free access to your VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion.
- Chase offers Credit Journey to anyone, not just Chase cardholders. The service provides a free VantageScore 3.0 credit score from TransUnion.
- Citi cardholders get access to their free FICO score. This score is updated once a month.
- Discover, through its Credit Scorecard service, offers free credit scores to anyone who signs up, not just cardholders.
- US Bank, through its CreditView Dashboard online service, offers VantageScore from TransUnion for free.
- Wells Fargo customers get access to a free FICO score, updated monthly, through Wells Fargo Online.