If you’ve never checked your credit reports before, the first thing to know is that you can access them for free. Federal law mandates that each of the “Big Three” consumer credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — gives you one free credit report per year. You can request all three at AnnualCreditReport.com. The second thing to know? If you’re looking to educate yourself, you may be better off with a free trial from a subscription site: These services tend to have more tools, more resources, and more user-friendly language.
BEST FREE CREDIT SCORE SITE
Federal law mandates that each of the “Big Three” consumer credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — gives you one free credit report per year. You can request all three at AnnualCreditReport.com — but be warned that it’s not a user-friendly experience. This website was set up by the Big Three Bureaus in order to comply with the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACTA), which required there to be a single, official website for consumers to access their reports. But AnnualCreditReport provides nothing but the raw data of your reports: no credit scores, no explanations, and no guidance on how to improve your credit.
If you’re looking for a more educational experience, you’re probably better off with a free trial from a subscription site. Identity Guard’s 30-day Total Protection trial was our favorite: You get credit reports from all three bureaus, access to your credit scores, and a host of resources. This includes tools like a debt calculator, a credit simulator, and a community forum. The drawback, of course, is that you’ll have to remember to call and cancel once your 30 days are up. Otherwise, monthly billing ($20 per month) will kick in automatically.
One final approach is to look into a free service like Credit Karma, Quizzle, WalletHub, or FreeCreditScore.com. These types of websites offer one or two of your bureau reports (never all three) plus a credit score. Most provide educational resources similar to what you’d get from a subscription service like Identity Guard — but prepare to be bombarded with ads for credit cards, auto loans, and home mortgages as you navigate their websites. And since none offer reports from all three bureaus, you’ll need to sign up for at least two separate services if you want to keep close tabs on your credit. We found Credit Karma the most comprehensive of these services, but you’ll still need to pair it with another site if you want to keep tabs on all three of your reports.
How We Found the Best Free Credit Report Sites
Your credit (or “creditworthiness”) is simply your track record of paying back loans on time. Your credit reports are just as simple: They’re reports of every line of credit you’ve had (including balances, limits, and payment histories), along with whether you’ve ever been sued or have filed for bankruptcy. They can be difficult to read without some context — they’re basically raw data, after all — but they’re vital to your financial reputation. Lenders use them to evaluate just about everything: your applications for credit cards, insurance, employment, or renting a home, as well as how much to charge you in interest.
For any credit report service to give you the full picture, it has to include each of the Big Three Bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
One of the Big Three offers unlimited access to its free reports.Experian updates its reports every 30 days and doesn’t charge for access. Create an account on its website (no credit card required) and log in anytime to view your complete (but utterly basic) Experian report. Still, it’s worth reiterating: To fully assess your credit, you need to have info from all three bureaus.
Each of these bureaus reports on your credit and each has its own method of data collection, so what shows up on one might not show up on the others. Most lenders check only one when making a decision, but you don’t know which one they’ll choose. “Monitoring only one of your three credit reports is like locking one of the three doors to your house,” says John Ulzheimer, a credit expert who has worked for both Equifax Credit Information Services and FICO.
Credit scores are a bonus.
Your credit score is essentially your whole credit report rolled into a single number between roughly 300 and 850. Each bureau has its own score to go along with its own report, but the most popular credit-scoring models are actually maintained by two other companies: FICO (originally called Fair, Isaac and Company) and VantageScore (a joint venture of the Big Three Bureaus). Credit scores by themselves don’t offer enough information for you to know how to improve them, but they’re still important to know, since many lenders use them as a shorthand for the longer reports.
Our Picks for the Best Free Credit Report Sites
Best for Raw Data
AnnualCreditReport.comThe federally-authorized location to get your three free reports a year.
AnnualCreditReport.com is the only place on the internet where you can get all three of your full credit reports for free. That said, it’s super bare-bones: little more than a portal that walks you through the steps to request your reports directly from the bureaus. Choose which bureau’s report you want, type in your credentials (including SSN), answer a few security questions, and voila: you’ll get a downloadable copy of your full credit report from that specific agency.
You can choose to request all three at the same time (allowing you to note any discrepancies between current reports), or you can space out your requests over the course of a year (allowing you to check at least one current report every four months). But, you only get one report per year from each bureau, and it shows your credit only for the day it’s compiled. If you use this method and check your TransUnion report, for example, and it changes a month later, you’ll be unaware of the change until you request next year’s TransUnion report.
And, you don’t get your credit score.
AnnualCreditReport.com takes a compliance-only approach: no credit scores and zero assistance in making sense of your reports. When you pull one, you’ll see it looks a lot like a bank statement. It’s basically a long list of your credit lines, debt, and payment histories going back years, along with any recent inquiries made by potential lenders, but there’s nothing to tell you how this data will be perceived by lenders.
The most help AnnualCreditReport.com offers is an FAQ page with links to articles on the Federal Trade Commission’s and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s websites. These definitely have useful info, but you might have to wade through a few thousand words to find what you’re looking for. Still, there’s no arguing that AnnualCreditReport.com does what it says on the label: It gives you your full credit report from each bureau, once annually.
Best Educational Resources
Identity Guard®Your reports and scores free for 30 days. After that, it’s $20/month.
Identity Guard currently offers a free 30-day trial of its “Total Protection” package. It’s called “Total Protection” because it’s actually an identity theft protection service first — but credit monitoring is one of the main methods of keeping your identity secure.
In contrast to AnnualCreditReport.com’s no-frills approach, Identity Guard’s free trial bundles your three bureau reports with some other nifty features, including credit scores, a description of how your profile compares to the general population, and suggestions for improving your credit based on which factors are weighed most heavily by lenders. If AnnualCreditReport.com’s reports are raw data, Identity Guard is a professor explaining what that data means and what you should do about it.
When you log into your free trial account, you’ll be able to click and scroll through each of your three credit reports without being redirected to another site or having to download anything. The full service, which is $20 a month, includes updated reports once every three months, but given that the free trial is only for 30 days, that’s kind of a moot point. However, it’s worth noting that the credit reports you get from Identity Guard are in addition to the ones you get from AnnualCreditReport.com, so it’s particularly handy if you’ve already maxed out your free pulls.
Identity Guard’s best complement to your credit reports (other than the actual credit scores from each bureau) is its Credit Analyzer tool, which lets you explore how various actions might impact your credit. You can simulate making payments, transferring balances, opening or closing accounts, and even receiving inquiries like you’d get from a landlord or credit card issuer to see how they affect your credit scores.
The site also goes into detail about how to request error corrections on your reports, something you never want to deal with, but might have to at some point. Errors can crop up because the bureau has made a clerical error, or worse, your SSN was stolen and used to open a fraudulent credit line in your name. The bureaus have 30 days to respond to your dispute, and they’re required to remove anything they can’t prove is accurate.
Identity Guard isn’t the only subscription service to offer a free trial, of course. But it’s the most impressive of the options we examined. TransUnion and Experian limit their free trials to just 7 days. LifeLock wanted us to pay upfront for our “free” trial — and instructed us to call them for a refund once 30 days were up. Identity Force’s trial, meanwhile, covered only identity theft monitoring services: You have to pay to access its suite of credit tools.
That said, we did unearth one runner-up that’s worth a mention. PrivacyGuard offers a 14-day trial with a range of credit tools that are very similar to Identity Guard’s offerings. Technically, PrivacyGuard’s trial isn’t free: You’ll have to pay $1 upon sign-up. But unlike Identity Guard, which requires you to call when you’re ready to cancel, PrivacyGuard’s cancellation process can be completed online.
Best DIY Education
Credit KarmaA free website that only pulls two of your three reports but offers a nice range of educational tools.
CreditKarma is the only free service we found that pulled credit reports from not one, but two credit bureaus. It doesn’t look at Experian’s data, however, so if you want the peace of mind of a truly comprehensive report, you’ll have to sign up for an additional service that focuses on this bureau — like FreeCreditScore.com — or opt for one of our other top picks.
That said, for a free service, CreditKarma has an impressively robust set of tools and resources. Like Identity Guard, it offers a credit score simulator that lets you see how your score would be impacted by various hypothetical situations: What would happen if you maxed out your credit card? What would happen if you paid off your student loan early? CreditKarma also provides clear, user-friendly explanations of the factors affecting your credit score — warning us, for example, that a high balance on one of our cards was heavily impacting our overall score. If you have questions, there’s also an active community forum where you can seek advice from other members.
But, as with all the free sites we looked at, prepare for a barrage of advertisements. Offers for credit cards and personal loans are displayed just as prominently on the dashboard as CreditKarma’s educational resources, which can make site navigation confusing. We also weren’t enthusiastic about CreditKarma’s insistence that we must sign up for email notifications (though, to their credit, we received no spam from them at all during our two weeks of testing).
nother (Not-Free) Credit Report Service to Consider
MyFICO Ultimate 3BOur top pick for best paid credit report service. So good, it’s worth mentioning again here. ($30/month)
If you’re staring to think that a paid credit monitoring subscription service might be easier, we’d also highly recommend MyFICO Ultimate 3B. You can check your current reports from all three bureaus at any time, and you’re also notified of any changes within 24 hours of when a bureau posts them. MyFICO also makes it easy to navigate through the sections of your reports, highlighting the most important information with notes on how it’s affecting your credit.
To top it off, the Score Simulator feature lets you see how simple actions — like paying $50 more per month on your credit cards or opening a mortgage — affect your FICO S core 8, the current industry standard used by roughly 90 percent of lenders.