A credit report is a detailed statement of your credit history — how you've handled your credit accounts and repaid your debts.
Credit reports include key financial information used by lenders, credit card issuers, and insurance companies to determine your creditworthiness. The information contained in your credit report also determines your credit score.
How do credit reports work?
For the most part, credit reports detail your history of payments to creditors over the past seven years. They may include personal information as well as credit inquiries performed by financial institutions.
Credit reports are issued by the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The bureaus, also known as credit reporting agencies, gather the information provided by creditors and lenders regarding the accounts you have with them.
If you’ve declared bankruptcy, your report may go back 10 years instead of the usual seven.
Types of Credit
Credit reporting bureaus categorize credit in three ways: revolving, open and installment. You'll find different types of credit within each category, including:
Personal loans provide an unsecured way to borrow money. They come in installment loans and open lines of credit. Credit cards, in a sense, are personal loans, letting you borrow money without offering collateral. Credit cards represent the most common type of revolving line of credit. Using personal loans and credit cards wisely helps you build credit.
Your credit report tracks these accounts and labels them as open or closed. It also records the loan amount or credit line amount and your balance. The report will include your payment history for each individual account as well.
Auto loans are generally approved with terms of three to eight years. These are installment loans, meaning you make equal monthly payments for a specific period of time. Your credit report states every open and closed loan for the last seven years. It also states the initial loan balance, current balance and payment history.
Funding designed to pay for education comes in the form of student loans. As of 2022, approximately 43.5 million Americans have federal student loan debt. If you’re one of them, your credit report will reflect the same information it would for other types of loans, as student loan lenders report loan information to the credit bureaus just like any other lender.
If you own a home with a mortgage, your credit file will include a mortgage loan account. Mortgages generally last for 30 years and are installment loans.
Who uses the information on your credit report?
With your credit report, the bureaus collect credit information about the debts you owe, your payment history, etc. This data is then provided to businesses, upon request, to help them manage risk and determine your ability to pay back debt.
The following are some of the entities that may evaluate your creditworthiness based on your credit report:
- Mortgage lenders
- Financial institutions
- Insurers / Insurance companies
- Potential landlords
What goes into your credit report
Credit reports contain a wide range of information from the past seven to 10 years, from personal details to data concerning loans and lines of credit under your name. This includes how many credit accounts are in good standing and which, if any, have late payments.
The personally identifiable information (PII) contained in your report is used to confirm that the accounts and financial information have been correctly assigned to you.
What’s in your credit report?
Your credit report may contain the following data:
1. Personal information
- Full name
- Former names
- Phone numbers
- Date of birth
- Social security number
- Home address
- Employers listed on credit applications
2. Credit accounts
- Open and closed accounts, including credit cards, home loans, auto loans, student loans and others
- The creditors associated with these accounts
- Loan amounts
- Payment history
- Credit limits
- Current account balances
- Dates when accounts were open and/or closed
3. Public records
- Home foreclosures
- As of 2017, tax liens no longer appear as public records on credit reports
4. Hard and soft inquiries
- Hard and soft inquiries, which are carried out by potential lenders or companies performing background checks
A hard inquiry results in a posting on your credit report. It occurs when you give lenders, landlords and others permission to check your credit. Hard inquiries remain on your report for two years.
A soft inquiry doesn't appear on your credit report. It occurs when you check your credit or when lenders check it without your permission. Soft inquiries don't affect your credit score.
How to check a credit report
As a consumer, you have the legal right to view your credit report. You can learn how to check your credit report by following these steps:
1. Visit annualcreditreport.com
Federal law requires that consumers have access to their credit reports. To view yours, visit annualcreditreport.com. Through this website, you can have access to your credit reports from TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.
2. Request a free copy of your credit report
Once on the website, you can request a free copy of your credit report by completing a form. This form verifies your identity by walking you through several steps. The first step requires entering personal information, such as your name and social security number. The next step verifies your identity through a series of questions to which only you should know the answers. Once you complete the form, the website produces your credit report.
3. Review your credit report carefully for errors
The information on your credit report should be accurate, up-to-date and complete. Most creditors update balance details monthly. As a result, some accounts might not reflect the current balances right away. Additionally, your report might not include new accounts immediately, as it takes time for these to appear.
Your credit report should not contain items over 10 years old or accounts that are not yours.
4. Dispute any errors you find
You can dispute your credit report if you find any inaccuracies. Credit bureaus must investigate every dispute received. You can initiate disputes by mailing letters, completing dispute forms online, or calling the credit reporting bureaus. The dispute process takes a few weeks, and the credit bureaus will notify you of the findings.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) protects your rights by providing access to your credit report. It also requires credit bureaus to keep your credit file up-to-date and accurate.
5. Monitor your credit report regularly
Regularly monitoring your credit report is wise. When you check your free credit score routinely, you can quickly address problems you find. As a result, you'll have better chances of maintaining a good credit score.
The difference between credit reports and credit scores
Credit scores can give lenders and creditors an idea of your ability to pay your bills on time and how much risk you represent as a borrower. The information used to calculate your credit score comes from your credit report.
As these show your credit history, payment history and the current state of your accounts.
Credit report vs. credit score
Credit reports and credit scores are commonly confused. Here are the key differences between them:
|A detailed statement of your credit history
|A three-digit number that typically ranges between 300 and 850
|Includes information from all your accounts
|The score represents your creditworthiness
|There are three reports, one per credit bureau
|The information on your credit report determines your credit score
How To Read Your Credit Report
Credit reports are usually split into four sections: Personal information, Accounts and credit history, Public records and Inquiries.
While reports are not always easy to read, they give you a better understanding of your credit history and how lenders and credit card issuers use it to evaluate your creditworthiness.
It bears repeating that your credit score will only be as good as the account information on which it’s based, so make sure it’s accurate. As you learn how to read your credit report, begin by verifying the accuracy of your personal information. Check to see if your address is correct, as well as your name and social security number. Next, look at each account and confirm that you own the accounts and that they have correct balances and payment histories.
Identifying mistakes on your credit report
A study conducted by the Federal Trade Commission found that 20% of consumers had mistakes on their credit reports that were corrected after being disputed.
If mistakes go unchecked, they can drive up interest rates and reduce your ability to buy a home, refinance your mortgage, request an auto loan or even land a job.
When reading your credit report, look out for:
- Incorrect late payments
- Addresses you don’t recognize
- Accounts you’ve never opened
- Account limits that are higher than they should be
- Requests for new credit you don’t recall making
- Any bill incorrectly marked as unpaid
Correcting mistakes on your credit report
We cover more on this topic in our article on how to remove negative items from your credit report. But in a nutshell, you can file a dispute directly with the bureau that provided the report.
By federal law, bureaus must respond within 30 days of receiving your dispute. You can also file a dispute with the company that provided the negative information.
While some inaccuracies found in your reports may be simple errors, others could indicate you’ve been a victim of identity theft. If you believe that to be the case, visit the FTC’s website for fraud reporting and request a free fraud alert from any of the three main credit bureaus.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is another entity that collects consumer complaints with issues relating to credit reporting problems.
How to improve your credit score
Given that your credit score can affect your ability to get approved for loans, rent properties, and even get jobs, getting a copy of your credit report is the first step toward improving it. Disputing inaccuracies could help you improve your score if the credit bureaus update the accounts or remarks. The bureaus base your score on five different credit categories: amounts owed, credit mix, new credit, length of credit history and payment history. Working on each category can help.
First, work on diversifying your credit mix. Having different types of accounts increases your score. For example, you could open a new credit card if you don't have any credit card accounts on file. Opening a new credit card also increases your available balance, lowering your credit utilization rate. Next, pay off some debt to lower your balances.
How your credit score is maintained
The best way to keep a good credit score is by implementing good credit practices and being consistent with them working on it. But what constitutes a good credit score number? The answer depends on the credit reporting agency. Different bureaus use different credit scoring models. For example, Experian labels 670 to 739 as a good credit score. On the other hand, VantageScore labels a good credit score as one between 661 to 780.
To maintain your score, use a credit monitoring app or service, and pay your bills on time. One late or missed payment can significantly reduce your credit score. It goes without saying that you should use your credit lines wisely. Avoid maxing out your credit cards or borrowing too much money.
Why is your credit report important?
Companies, lenders, employers and landlords use your credit report to make decisions about you. Therefore, your credit score affects your ability to get loans and rent or buy property. It also affects your car insurance rates and the interest rates and terms lenders will offer you when you apply for loans, credit lines or credit cards.
When should you get a credit report?
You're entitled to one free credit report each year. However, you can access your credit information more frequently. At a minimum, check your score yearly. Check your score weekly or monthly to improve or maintain it. It's also highly recommended to check your credit report anytime you suspect fraud.
FAQs about credit reports
How can I get a free credit report?
You have a right to a copy of your credit report, as required by the FCRA of 1970. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is tasked with enforcing the act.
You can request a free annual credit report from all three credit bureaus at annualcreditreport.com, the only government-sanctioned website for free credit reports.
How long does a bankruptcy stay on your credit report?
If you filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it will appear on your credit report for 10 years. But if you filed for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy repayment plan, it will remain on your report for seven years.
How long do late payments stay on your credit report?
How long do hard inquiries stay on your credit report?
How can you freeze your credit report?
How long do closed accounts stay on your credit report?
Summary of Money's guide to credit reports
- Credit reports are detailed accounts of how you've handled credit — like loans and credit cards — over the years.
- Credit reports include personal information, details about your credit accounts, information from public records, and credit inquiries.
- Incorrect or outdated items on your credit reports can lower your credit score, so make sure to review all three of your reports regularly.
- The only government-sanctioned website where you can request your free credit reports is AnnualCreditReport.com.