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How to get a free credit report — and why you should

Photo of a magnifying glass atop a sheet of printed paper reading 'CREDIT REPORT', next to a laptop computer and a pen on a wooden desk.
(Image credit: Light And Dark Studio/Shutterstock)

Your credit report is a rundown of your credit history, including accounts you've opened, how much you owe, your payment history and a summary of certain legal issues.

Lenders use this information to determine whether to grant you a credit card, a car loan or a mortgage. Landlords and employers sometimes consider credit history for prospective tenants and employees.

Because your credit past can have a big impact on your financial future, you'll want to stay up to date on what's in your credit report. 

"People need to be informed and educated about credit," said Darin Shebesta, a certified financial planner and wealth advisor with Jackson/Roskelley Wealth Advisors, Inc., in Scottsdale, Arizona. "I think at least checking [your credit report] once a year is smart and then obviously more frequently as long as you don't have to pay for it."

Federal law requires that each major credit-reporting agency — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — provides a free copy of your credit report once per year. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, all three credit bureaus are offering free reports on a weekly basis, meaning you can keep a very close eye on your financial wellbeing. As of this writing, weekly reporting is expected to be available until April 20, 2022. 

Here's how to request yours.

How to get your free credit report

To request your free credit report, hop on over to AnnualCreditReport.com (don't trust any other website) and follow these steps: 

1.    Tap "Request yours now!" in the top menu bar or click the "Request your free credit reports" button. 

2.    Click the "Request your credit reports" button on the next page. 

3.    Enter your information, including your full name, birthday, Social Security number and address into the form fields and hit Next. 

4.    Select which credit bureau report you want. You can choose one, two or all three. Click Next. 

5.    Enter the requested verification information, such as the last four digits of your Social Security number or your email address, on the next screen and follow any further instructions. 

6.    If the credit-reporting agency is able to verify your identity, you will get access to your free report. You'll have to repeat the verification process for each bureau if you select more than one. 

7.    If your identity cannot be verified, you may have to call the credit bureau or submit a request by mail. 

As noted, you can currently request a free report from each credit-reporting agency on a weekly basis, so it won't make a huge difference if you get all three at once or spread them out over a few days.

Once you are limited again to one report per credit bureau per year, you should request all three reports at the same time only if you're planning a big purchase like a home or car. Otherwise, it may be best to order one free report every few months. 

"Certainly, if you're going to go and apply for credit, you want to check before you do it," Shebesta says. "Part of why it's good to check it out ASAP is because if there are any errors that need to be corrected, that takes time."

What's in my credit report? 

Your credit report is a compilation of your financial history as reported by creditors, lenders and financial institutions. The information in your credit report generally falls into several major categories:

  • Personal information: names (present and past), addresses (current and former), phone numbers, Social Security number, birthdate
  • Information about your credit accounts: account types and dates, credit limits, balances, payment history
  • Information from public records: liens, bankruptcies, foreclosures, civil judgments
  • Collection history: accounts sent to debt-collection agencies
  • Credit inquiries: companies and creditors that have viewed your report

While all your credit reports likely contain similar information, they will probably not be identical. Creditors are not required to report their data to every bureau, which is why it's helpful to request a report from each agency at least once a year. This also allows you to compare for common credit report errors

One thing you probably won't see on your credit report? Your credit score. Credit-reporting bureaus are not obligated to provide a score for free with your credit report. 

Credit report vs. credit score

While related, your credit report and credit score are not the same. Your credit report shows your credit history, which certainly informs your credit score, a prediction of your future creditworthiness. 

Credit scores range from 300 to 850 and help creditors understand, at a glance, how likely you are to pay your debts on time. Generally speaking, the lower your score, the higher the risk a creditor is taking when lending you money. 

"The report tells the story of the score," Shebesta says.

However, there are a few different formulas used to calculate credit scores, and within each model — FICO and VantageScore are the key players — are a handful of different types of scores. 

Credit bureaus also have their own "educational" scores that may or may not reflect your official FICO score. Your credit score could vary based on the model used and the data supplied by each individual credit-reporting bureau. 

How to get a free credit report: Bottom line

Your credit report contains useful information about your credit history, which is what lenders use to determine whether you should qualify for more credit. You have access to a free credit report from each credit-reporting agency at least once per year from AnnualCreditReport.com — take advantage of this to ensure there are no surprises.

Emily Long is a Utah-based freelance writer who covers consumer technology, privacy and personal finance for Tom's Guide. She has been reporting and writing for nearly 10 years, and her work has appeared in Wirecutter, Lifehacker, NBC BETTER and CN Traveler, among others. When she's not working, you can find her trail running, teaching and practicing yoga, or studying for grad school — all fueled by coffee, obviously.