It’s now possible there are more people who have access to a free credit score than people who know how they work.
Most Americans will be able to get their FICO credit score for free starting this year, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which just announced that more than 50 million Americans now have access to free credit scores.
But a 2013 study conducted by the advocacy group Consumer Federation of America found more than 40 percent of Americans don’t know credit card issuers and mortgage lenders look at credit scores before making decisions.
Even for people who know the basics about credit scores, it’s easy to get confused. Until now, only a couple banks and lenders offered consumers a free peek at their credit score — they typically cost about $20 each when purchased straight from FICO, but there are literally dozens of variations available. Each credit bureau and financial site seems to sell a different one at a different price.
FICO also just started throwing in access to additional, industry-specific versions when you purchase one score. So for the price of one, you get six scores — and it’s not clear yet whether that will bring more confusion or clarity for consumers. We’ll make it as clear as possible…
Where can I get my FICO score?
Discover: Discover was one of the first to offer its cardholders free FICO credit scores back in 2013. You can get your TransUnion FICO score monthly.
Barclaycard US: Barclaycard is a credit card, not a bank, but it has an option for users to get a free FICO score and email alerts anytime the score changes.
Citigroup: All Citi cardholders can get a free monthly copy of their Equifax FICO score.
Capital One: Capital One already offers free access to TransUnion credit reports to cardholders through its “Credit Tracker,” and will soon add access to scores.
Available: March 2015
USAA: The United Services Automobile Association, which offers insurance and banking to members of the U.S. military, will begin to offer a free Experian VantageScore to all credit card holders.
Available: March 2015
JPMorgan Chase: About 10 million Slate cardholders will be able to get their FICO score for free from Chase Bank.
Available: Early 2015
Ally Financial: Though it’s mostly known for auto lending, Ally Financial also is involved in corporate financing, mortgages, and online banking. It will begin to offer free FICO scores in 2015.
Available: The pilot program kicks off in Febuary 2015, but scores will be available to all auto consumers by the end of the summer.
Bank of America: The bank said that it will provide a free FICO score to all of its consumer credit cardholders.
Available: Late 2015
Aren’t credit scores already free?
While some people already have access to free credit scores (we’ll explain how later) you’re probably thinking of credit reports, which everyone is entitled to.
A credit report is a record of your credit history, and is curated by three national credit reporting bureaus — Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. A credit score is a three-digit number calculated by the credit bureaus that assesses how risky of a borrower you are. It’s based on the credit report, but not the same thing.
You can get your credit report for free once a year from each of the credit bureaus at annualcreditreport.com, but keep in mind both your credit report and score can change monthly. If you want to see a current copy a few months later, you have to pay for it.
Are these free credit scores FICO scores?
Yes. And if you don’t understand why that matters, don’t skip this section.
Credit scores are numbers used to describe to lenders how big of a risk you may be. When you take out a car loan, for example, the car salesman has to evaluate how great the chances are that you’ll be able to make your car payments on time. There are different formulas for calculating a credit score, and the exact details of the popular ones, FICO and VantageScore, are trade secrets.
FICO is generally regarded as the gold standard of credit scoring, since they’ve been around since the 70s. While FICO is a separate company, each credit bureau sells FICO scores based on its own consumer credit report data. They also sell variations of FICO scores tailored for specific loans — so there are FICO scores used for auto loans that may be different than ones used for credit cards.
Making it more complicated, the credit bureaus created their own algorithm to compete with FICO called VantageScore. Far fewer lenders use it, but the free credit scores you see around the web are often VantageScores or generic credit scores. FICO scores may be offered for “free,” but that usually means a free trial of credit monitoring.
That makes the news you can get a real FICO score for free — no strings attached — a big deal.
How is a FICO score calculated, anyway?
While FICO doesn’t share the exact calculations that go into its scores, the company does publicize the basics. Here’s how a FICO score breaks down:
- Your payment history: 35 percent
- Amounts owed: 30 percent
- Length of credit history: 15 percent
- Type of credit in use: 10 percent
- New credit: 10 percent
You can learn a lot more about FICO scores — including how to boost yours — here.