Are free credit scores accurate?

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Some institutions give out your credit score for free, while others charge a fee. This might have you wondering: What’s the catch? And are free credit scores accurate? The short answer is usually, yes. But you might find that some free credit scores don’t match your expectations, or maybe they don’t match what a lender tells you your score is.

This confusion can happen because there are actually many different kinds of credit scores, and they won’t always line up with each other. To understand why, let’s dig into the various credit scoring options out there.

The FICO Score

There are two major credit scoring models: FICO and VantageScore. These models use computer software to generate a credit score for every consumer based on their past transactions with lenders. This score is supposed to estimate how risky a consumer is as a borrower. 

Out of the two models, the FICO score is far more commonly used by lenders. For example, almost all mortgage lenders opt to use FICO scores. FICO claims that 90 percent of top lenders prefer to use a FICO score over other options. 

There have been nine versions of the FICO score released to date, each created in an effort to adapt to changing consumer habits. And some, despite their age, are still being used today. FICO 98, released in 1998, is still used by some lenders for lending decisions and given away for free by others. 

Currently, there are dozens of FICO scores in circulation. The newly released version is known as FICO 10 Suite and includes both FICO 10 and FICO 10T. However, the FICO Score 8 is still the most widely used version right now.

The published range of the FICO score is 300 – 850, and your FICO score is determined by five factors, all weighted differently. Those factors are:

Keep this factors in mind when considering how you can potentially improve your score.

Industry-specific FICO scores

There are also different FICO scores used for specific industries. For example:

  • For auto lending: FICO Auto Scores 2, 4, 5 and 8
  • For credit card lending: FICO Bankcard Scores 2, 4, 5 and 8 and FICO Score 3
  • For mortgage lending: FICO Score 2, 4 and 5

FICO industry-specific scores work similarly to the standard FICO scores and provide a lender with a credit risk assessment relevant to the type of credit the person is seeking. This helps lenders within certain industries make more informed decisions when evaluating a consumer’s risk. 

When you go to a lender and they pull a FICO credit score for you, you won’t have any control over which model they choose to use. The good news is that the factors to receive a favorable FICO score remain consistent across all the models—focus on making timely payments and keeping balances low and you’ll be on the right track. 

The VantageScore

The VantageScore credit scoring model, the other major player in the credit scoring game, was created in 2006 as an alternative to the FICO score. It was founded by the three national credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. 

VantageScore 4.0, released in 2017, is the most updated version of the scoring model. Unlike FICO, VantageScore only calculates base credit scores and doesn’t offer industry-specific scores, but it does now match FICO’s range of 300 – 850. 

VantageScore is less popular than FICO, but many lenders still use it. According to an independent study, more than 2,500 users accessed 12.3 billion VantageScore credit scores—and usage has continued to grow year over year. 

Even though the five credit factors are essentially the same for both FICO and VantageScore, the weighted averages for each factor are slightly different. VantageScore 4.0 weighs the factors as:

  • 41 percent payment history
  • 20 percent mix of credit/credit age
  • 20 percent utilization 
  • 11 percent new credit 
  • 6 percent balance 
  • 2 percent available credit 

So this is another reason why you might be surprised by a free credit score you get—FICO and VantageScore use different scoring algorithms, which can lead to either minor or major differences between a person’s two scores. 

How do the credit bureaus fit into this?

Two lenders can pull your credit score and get different results. How does this happen? First, it will depend on whether the lender pulled a FICO or a VantageScore credit score. Next, your score may differ depending on which version of FICO or VantageScore was used. Finally, it could matter which bureau’s data your score was based on.

Experian, Equifax and TransUnion are for-profit companies with different systems and processes for collecting financial consumer data. Since it costs money to report to a credit bureau, some financial institutions may fail to report their information to all three bureaus.

As a result, pulling a FICO score from TransUnion could be quite different from pulling a FICO score from Equifax. One of the bureaus could be missing something as important as an auto loan you’ve defaulted on, for example. 

The same logic applies to VantageScore. Each credit bureau is only as good as the data it has. Keep all of this in mind when you’re checking your score online, whether you got your score for free or not.

So, which score should you check?

Ideally, you’ll want to know both your FICO score and your VantageScore. When you go to a lender, you don’t know which score your lender is going to see. Knowing both scores ensures you won’t get any surprises. 

Hopefully, your scores from each of the bureaus will be about the same. However, that depends on whether they all have the same information on your credit report—which is why it’s essential to check your reports regularly. If you find you have two vastly different scores, it’s a sign something’s wrong. You’ll want to get to the bottom of this discrepancy. 

Does checking your score hurt your credit?

If you check your credit score yourself, no, it won’t hurt your credit score. There are two types of credit score checks: soft inquiries and hard inquiries. A soft inquiry—which is what it is when you check your own score—doesn’t lower your score. However, a hard inquiry will temporarily lower your score. 

A hard inquiry is typically done in the final stages before approving a loan. For example, getting preapproved for an auto loan is a soft inquiry. But when you’re ready to sign up for the auto loan, the lender will need to pull a hard inquiry. 

You can always ask a lender if the credit check they’re about to pull will impact your credit score if you aren’t sure. 

Where can you get your credit score for free?

Now that you know what to consider when checking any of your credit scores, learn where you can go to check it for free. 

Banks, credit unions and credit card companies

Most banks, credit unions and credit card companies now offer free credit score checks. These institutions usually have free credit scores available on their online banking platforms.  

Certain websites

Several websites offer your free credit score in exchange for your agreement to let them market your personal information:

  • CreditKarma (TransUnion and Equifax VantageScores)
  • CreditSesame (Experian VantageScore)
  • Discover Credit Scorecard (Experian FICO score)

If you pay for your credit score, will it be more accurate?

Not necessarily, no. As long as you understand what a specific credit score represents—what model and which bureau’s data it’s based on—a free score from a reputable source should be suitable. 

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) published a study in September 2012 that compared consumer-purchased and free credit scores. The study found that the majority of consumers received similar rankings across different models:

  • 73 – 80 percent of different credit scoring models place consumers in the same category (e.g., “fair” or “exceptional”)
  • 19 – 24 percent of different credit scoring models place consumers one category apart in rankings
  • 1 – 3 percent of consumers are placed two or more categories apart in differing ranking models

The study concluded that individuals shouldn’t assume that purchasing a credit score makes it more accurate or reliable. Instead, the research suggests that accessing your credit score from multiple sources is best. With so many free resources today, consumers don’t need to spend money on their scores anymore. 

You can talk to a professional about your credit

Professional credit services can help you with all credit-related matters. At, we can offer a free online credit evaluation. This includes a free credit score, free credit summary, free negative item review and free credit improvement plan.

If you’re unhappy with your current score, you might be interested in our credit repair services. We can help you dispute any false or misleading negative items and get on a path to a stronger credit score. Get started with us today.

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