How To Get (and Understand) Your Free Credit Score

Want a loan or a premium credit card with good perks? You’re going to need a decent credit score.

Calculated by information found in your credit report, this three-digit number predicts how likely you will pay back a loan or stay current on your card payments. The higher the score, the more likely you’ll get approved for credit by lenders, and at the best interest rates. So it makes sense to know where you stand before sending in a credit application.

“Credit scores all provide a snapshot of our credit quality and give us an idea how lenders are going to view us when we apply for credit,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer, who formerly worked at FICO and Equifax. “They all tell a story about our risk.”

Here’s how to obtain your credit score, for free, and how to understand what it says about your creditworthiness.

Get your score

It’s important to remember that there is no one credit score. However, the variations among them are modest enough that you need obtain only one score for this exercise.

FICO is the oldest source of scores, and the one that’s most commonly used by lenders. There are actually more than 25 FICO scores in use, although the differences between them are slight. The typical FICO score ranges from 300 to 850, but some FICO scores designed for specific types of lenders use a range of 250 to 900.

VantageScore is newer—first developed in 2006—and has four generations of its score. The range for its three most recent score versions—the ones you’re most likely to receive—is 300 to 850. The range for the original VantageScore is 501 to 990. Despite these differences, any one of these scores can still help you understand your creditworthiness.

Some credit unions, banks and credit card issuers give free credit scores to their customers on a monthly or quarterly basis. Otherwise, there are several credit websites with free scores and credit card issuers that provide scores at no cost to non-customers. Choose a source for your score based on what’s most convenient to you.

Free FICO Scores

Available to everyone from:

  • FreeCreditScore.com
  • Discover
  • Available to customers of:
  • American Express
  • Bank of America
  • Barclaycard
  • Chase Slate cardholders
  • Citibank
  • Commerce Bank
  • First National Bank of Omaha
  • Wells Fargo

Free VantageScores

Available to everyone from:

  • Credit Karma
  • Credit Sesame
  • Quizzle

Available to customers of:

  • USAA
  • Capital One (through its free CreditWise program)
  • Chase (through its free CreditJourney program)

Compare your score

Once you have your score in hand, it’s time to evaluate it. Many sources of free scores will let you know if your score falls in the poor, fair, good, very good or exceptional range. That will help you understand how lenders will judge your risk and determine whether you qualify for a loan or credit card, and at what terms.

FICO scoreVantageScoreOutcome
800-850750-850You’ll likely receive the best rates and most favorable terms.
740-799700-749You’ll likely receive competitive rates.
670-739650-699You’ll be approved but not at competitive rates.
580-669550-649Your score is considered subprime. You’ll receive unfavorable rates and need to contribute larger down payments.
300-579300-549You’ll likely be denied credit. If approved, you may have to pay a fee or deposit and the highest rates.

Review any factors that are holding your score back

If your score isn’t as high as you’d hoped, devise a plan to improve it. Many of these free scores come with a list of key factors that are hurting your credit score. This can help you target certain behaviors to change, so you can improve your credit score down the road. Look for the following factors you can control directly, and begin to address immediately:

Too-high utilization rate: Your utilization rate is the percentage of available of credit you use on your credit cards. If you charge $50 on a card with a $500 limit, then your utilization rate is 10%. To improve your credit score, keep the rate below 30% on each card and across all your credit cards.

Spotty payment history: If a handful of late payments is hurting your credit score, get disciplined about paying on time. Set up automatic payments from your checking account for each credit card and loan. Or, set calendar reminders for each bill.

Too many hard inquiries: Your credit score will take a hit if too many lenders request your credit report—called a hard inquiry—in a short time. Space out your credit applications by at least six months and avoid opening new accounts—especially store credit cards—on a whim.

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