Free Credit Scores, Reports, and Monitoring: Complete guide.

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If you often sign up for credit cards in order to earn signup bonuses, then you’ve probably realized that managing your credit is important. And it’s not just your credit score that’s important — it’s also good to be alerted when new hard inquiries are made and to know the details of your credit report . Chase’s dreaded 5/24 Rule is a good example of this. Chase will usually decline an applicant if he or she has opened 5 or more credit cards with any bank in the past 24 months. So, it’s a good idea to know how to count your 5/24 status.

The Basics

Three credit bureaus: In the US, there are three credit bureaus that banks can use to request your credit report: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Some banks pull from just one bureau. Some pull from two. Some pull from all three. And they’re not always consistent. Depending upon where you live, banks may vary which credit bureau(s) they pull from.

Credit Score

Scores: Most lenders use your FICO Score to help determine whether or not to extend new credit to you. According to myFICO, scores take into account the following factors:

  • 35% Payment History: Always pay your bills on time!
  • 30% Amounts Owed: Try not to use anywhere near all of your available credit
  • 15% Length of Credit History: The longer the better. Don’t get rid of your oldest cards!
  • 10% New Credit: When you open many new accounts, it can affect your score negatively
  • 10% Credit Mix: It’s good to have a mix of loans: credit cards, car loan, mortgage, etc.

Inquiries: When you request a new card, the credit issuer almost always issues a “hard” inquiry rather than a soft inquiry. A hard inquiry (a “hard pull”) will usually have a small temporary negative effect on your credit score. Even if your score doesn’t decrease, too many hard inquiries can hurt your chances of getting a new credit card because it looks like you’re desperate for credit. Soft inquiries have no effect.

Tip 1: Hard Inquiries appear only on the credit report of the bureau that handled the inquiry. This means that you will likely have different numbers of inquiries showing on each credit report. By keeping track of which credit bureau each bank uses for your applications, it may be possible to spread out the inquiries across bureaus so that no single bureau shows too many.

Tip 2: Inquiries “hurt” much less as time goes by. After 90 days, the negative effect is minimal. After 6 months, hard inquiries are barely considered. And, after 24 months they fall off your credit report altogether.

Accounts: When you are approved for a new card, it becomes a new account on your credit reports. Most if not all major banks report accounts to all three bureaus. They report the open date, close date (if applicable), current balance each month, current credit limit, whether or not you missed payments, etc.

Tip 1: The status of your revolving credit accounts is much more important to your credit score than number of inquiries. Make sure to pay your all of your accounts on time.

Tip 2: Having more accounts can help your credit score. 30% of your score is your credit utilization ratio. The larger your total credit limit, the better your utilization ratio should be. In most cases, more cards means having a higher limit and therefore a better utilization ratio.

Tip 3: Unlike inquiries, accounts usually show up on all three credit bureaus.

FREE Credit Scores, Reports, and Monitoring

Free Equifax FICO Credit Score from Citi

Ideally you would have ready access to your scores, accounts (credit report details), and inquiries from all three bureaus. And, ideally, all three bureaus would be monitored: you would be alerted when new inquiries are made or new accounts added to your reports. And, of course, all of this would ideally be free. Here’s how…

In most cases there are a number of options for free scores, reports, and/or monitoring. Many tools offer free FAKO credit scores (these are estimates of FICO scores), but it’s possible to find free options for real FICO scores. I’ve picked the options that I think will be most accessible to most readers:

Equifax

Experian

TransUnion

Recommendation

For most people, monitoring all three credit bureaus is probably overkill.  In my opinion, WalletHub is an excellent choice for those who want to subscribe to just one free service which provides credit monitoring (get alerted when there are any changes to your report), full credit details, and a FAKO credit score (which is good enough for most needs).  Alternatively, if you want to use a similar service that also makes it possible to count your Chase 5/24 status (via the trick described here), consider Credit Karma.

With either WalletHub or Credit Karma, if you then also want to look up your actual credit score, look to your credit card issuer: Citi for Equifax, Discover for Experian, and Amex, Barclays, or Discover for TransUnion.

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