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Credit Reporting

How to get your free credit report

Remember your permanent record? It's that mysterious document that teachers and principals threatened to update whenever you did something wrong. You likely got through life without ever having to worry about what ended up on that record. You may have even realized those words to be empty threats while you were still a student.

What you may not realize is that there's a report out there that can have a major impact on your life. It's your credit report, and it has way more power than your so-called permanent record ever did. Having a blemish-free credit report can help you buy a car and purchase the house of your dreams.

Pretty awesome, right?

Negative information on that report can do the opposite. It can make it hard for you to get a great job or even open a credit card to cover emergency expenses. Not so awesome.

Knowing what's on your credit report is important. Think of it as a measure of your financial health.

How to get a free credit report step-by-step

Obtaining a free credit report might be similar to getting a checkup from the doc, but it's a whole lot simpler. Just follow these steps to get a copy of yours.

1. Check out AnnualCreditReport.com

AnnualCreditReport.com makes getting your report super easy. This is the official site authorized by Federal law, and approved by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), so you know it's trustworthy.

Unfortunately, some shady characters have created sites with similar names. Some are relatively harmless and full of ads. Others may steal your information, setting you up to be a victim of identity theft (and that's the type of gift-that-keeps-on-giving you never, ever want to encounter).

Don't stress about it, though. Just make sure you type the address correctly in the browser bar. Or, click this link to get there directly.

2. Supply your personal information

Once you're on the website, click the red button that says, "Request your free credit reports." For safety, don't proceed while on an unsecured network, like the one at your favorite coffee shop. Wait until you're home on password-protected Wi-Fi.

The next page that loads gives you some instructions. Check them out and then click the red button that says, "Request your credit reports."

Now, provide all the information requested. The site asks for:

  • Legal name with middle initial and any suffixes

  • Birthday

  • Social Security number

  • Current address

  • Any other addresses you lived at over the last 2 years

When everything is correct in the boxes, click the red "Next" button. If you get an error, make sure you fill out all the areas that have a red asterisk.

3. Choose Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion

The next site gives you the chance to choose which credit reporting bureaus you want reports from. There are three: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Each credit reporting agency may have different information.

To get the best picture of your report, choose all three.

4. Answer security questions

Once you make your choices, the site will direct you to a page with a list of questions. The purpose of them is to make sure you're actually you (so existential, right?). The questions may ask you about loans or credit cards you have or addresses that you lived at.

They're multiple choice, so you just select the correct answer. Don't get worried if none of the answers seem correct. Sometimes, the right answer is "none of the above."

5. Download your report

After the site verifies who you are, you'll get a link to your report. You can download and/or print it.

If for any reason you have trouble accessing your report, keep calm and carry on by filling out a request form. This document asks the same questions as the online form. Once it's finished, mail it to the address printed at the top. For easy reference, it's:

Annual Credit Report Request Service P.O. Box 105281 Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

Once the form arrives, it can take up to 15 days to process your request. You'll get your free credit report in the mail after processing.

6. Review your report carefully

You've got your report in hand. Now, it's time to look it over. Go through it item by item and look for:

  • Accounts with an incorrect name or address

  • Accounts that are paid off but still listed as open

  • Inaccurate balances

  • Inaccurate credit limits

  • Negative information that's more than 7 years old

  • Accounts you don't recognize

Keep in mind that sometimes financial institutions are bought out or sell off debt.

When this happens, the credit report may list a different lender than the one you got your credit card or loan through. If you're unsure, do an internet search for the original lender's name. You're likely to find news articles announcing the change. Sometimes, if you visit the lender's website, you'll be redirected to the new company.

7. Dispute errors promptly

If you find something incorrect on your report, don't put off reporting it. An error could be an innocent mistake, but it could also indicate identity theft. Taking action quickly is the best way to protect yourself and your Scrooge McDuck-esque pile of coins from the latter.

Report the error to each credit reporting agency affected. If the error is on all three, file a dispute with each of them. You can do so online, over the phone or by mail. Here's the contact information for filing a dispute:

Experian

  • File a claim online

  • Mail a letter to Experian, P.O. Box 4500, Allen, TX 75013

  • Call (888) 397-3742 unless another number is listed on the report

Equifax

  • File a claim online

  • Mail a letter to Equifax Information Services, LLC, P.O. Box 740256, Atlanta, GA 30374

  • Call (886) 349-5191

TransUnion

  • File a claim online

  • Mail a letter to TransUnion Consumer Solutions, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016

  • Call (800) 916-8800

When you file a claim, be prepared to pony up some receipts:

  • Copy of your driver's license or state-issued ID

  • Your Social Security number

  • Your date of birth

  • Proof of the error, like billing statements or canceled checks

  • Your current address and any other addresses you lived at over the last 2 years

Once a credit reporting agency receives a dispute, federal law requires them to investigate the matter within 30 days. In some cases, the agency can extend the period up to 45 days.

8. Report identity theft as needed

If a credit reporting agency tells you that an error is due to identity theft, you'll usually need to take additional steps. Often, the agency requires you to file a police report. You can do that by stopping by your local police station.

You may also need to file a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Identity Theft Report. The quickest way is to visit IdentityTheft.gov. After you file, you'll get a recovery plan that lists other steps to take to protect your identity.

Why do I need to check my credit report?

There are a few reasons why you should check your credit report, including:

  • Ability to plan for purchases:

    Knowing what's on your credit report can give you a rough idea about whether you'll qualify for a loan or credit card. If you have issues, you can enlist the help of a cosigner or explore other methods of payment ahead of time.

  • Chance to improve your credit:

    You can't fix a problem if you don't know it exists. A credit report can alert you to outstanding debts you can pay off or down. This could help raise your credit score.

  • Assurance that you get fair consideration:

    Errors on your credit report could lead to an unfair loan request denial. Get problems fixed before you apply to set yourself up for the best outcome.

  • Identity theft protection:

    Identity theft can cost you time and money. The sooner you spot it, the easier it usually is to safeguard your information and prevent further damage.

How often can I request a free credit report?

Generally, federal law entitles you to receive one free credit report from each agency every 12 months. You have the option to get them individually or request them all at once. In special circumstances, you may be able to get a free credit report more often.

These include:

  • You were denied something based on your report:

    If you're turned down for a job, credit, or insurance because of your credit report, you have a right to view the information. You'll receive a notice in the mail advising you of the right. Follow the instructions on the notice within 60 days to get the info.

  • You believe you're a victim of identity theft:

    When you place a fraud alert with a credit reporting agency, you're entitled to a free credit report. You might also be able to obtain free reports after filing an FTC or police report.

  • You're unemployed:

    If you plan to apply for a job in the next 60 days, you can get a free copy of your credit report to check for negative info.

  • You receive public assistance:

    People who receive benefits from welfare programs might be able to get copies of their reports more frequently.

In 2020, the FTC created a special policy that allows everyone in the States to obtain free credit reports on a weekly basis. The program will remain in effect until December 31, 2023. Once it ends, you'll only be able to get one report per year unless you're in one of the above circumstances.

How often should I review my credit report?

The CFPB suggests reviewing your credit report annually. That's why federal law allows for one report per year. If you were a victim of identity theft, you may want to review your report more frequently. People who are working to improve their credit should also review more often so they can see what they're doing right, where they can improve, and how the chances they're making are affecting that oh-so-important three-digit score.

What's the difference between a credit report and a credit score?

Your credit report is a record of your credit. It lists open and closed accounts, provides balances and credit limits, and details your repayment history.

A credit score is a three-digit number that represents your risk from a credit perspective. Private companies like FICO and VantageScore create models that use the information contained in your credit report to come up with a score of your credit risk.

Scores usually range from 300 to 850. A higher score means you're less of a risk. Although you are entitled to a free report, this does not include free access to your credit score.

When you apply for a job, credit, or loan, the employer, creditor, or company will usually start with your credit score. If your score is high, they may not even check your report. If it's low, they'll typically pull your report to find out why.

Your credit report and your credit score go hand in hand. Think of your score as the what and the report as the why. When you take steps to address negative information contained in the why, your score will likely go up.

Does getting a free credit report affect my credit score?

Requesting a free credit report doesn't affect your credit score. Typically, getting your credit score from the credit reporting agencies also won't. Chalk up two points in the win column for consumers!

When a third party pulls your report when you request credit, it's called an inquiry. Inquiries can cause your credit score to go down. However, this is usually only the case if there are a lot of inquiries in a short window of time, like if you got turned down by three stores and tried three more. Be strategic about your asks and you should be A-OK.

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