If you’re checking your credit score or credit report, Credit Karma and Experian are two names you’ll likely come across. Perhaps you’ve wondered, what’s the difference between these two credit score providers? Is a "free" service necessarily the best?

Here’s a quick, neutral overview of how they compare. We look at company profiles, the products each offers – and how much each company charges. Plus, we point out a few things that are unique to each one.  

COMPANY PROFILES

Credit Karma (www.creditkarma.com) is not a credit bureau; it is an online financial platform that makes credit bureaus’ information available to consumers. Members can check and monitor their credit score and credit report for free. The site also offers various financial and educational tools to help you improve your credit rating. Founded in 2007 by CEO Kenneth Lin, the company is privately held and has received several rounds of venture capital. (For more on the company’s business model, read Why Credit Karma Is Free & How It Makes Money.) 

Experian (www.experian.com) is probably best known as one of the three major credit reporting bureaus in the United States (the other two are TransUnion and Equifax). But that service is just one part of this global company, which is headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, and listed on the London Stock Exchange (EXPN). Headed by CEO Brian Cassin, with 16,000 employees operating in North America, the U.K., Brazil and beyond, Experian has four main business lines: credit services, marketing services, decision analytics and consumer services. It also owns the for-profit FreeCreditReport.com (not to be confused with AnnualCreditReport.com, the Federal Trade Commission–authorized website for free credit reports). 

WHERE TO SIGN UP

Credit Karma is a full online platform, so everything happens at www.creditkarma.com. That’s where you’ll register as a member to gain access to your credit scores and reports, which you can print or save as PDFs. Members can also register bank and credit card accounts to get a full financial picture. And you can access your account online or via a mobile app for iPhone or Android

Experian offers purchase and access to your scores and reports via www.experian.com. You can also order them by phone (877-284-7942) Monday to Friday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. PT; Saturday & Sunday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT. You can print or make a PDF of your report, or receive it by U.S. mail. 

WHAT EACH OFFERS – AND HOW MUCH IT COSTS

CREDIT SCORES

Credit Karma offers Vantage 3.0 scores from TransUnion and Equifax. Vantage is a collaboration of the three major credit bureaus, including Experian. Scores are updated once a week, plus members can sign up for credit monitoring alerts, so they’ll be notified whenever their score changes.

Experian offers the FICO Score 8 Model, one of 49 different FICO scores. Frequency of updates depends on the service (we’ll get to those details in a minute). 

CREDIT REPORTS

Credit Karma offers full credit reports from TransUnion and Equifax, updated weekly. 

Experian offers a full credit report from Experian and the option to also purchase full reports from the three major credit bureaus.

PRICING

Credit Karma It’s simple: Everything is free. Free credit scores, free credit reports, free credit monitoring and alerts. You’ll never be asked to register a credit card, as you do for most “free trials.” (Human nature being what it is, it’s easy to forget to cancel and then, boom, you’re on the hook for at least one month’s fees.)

Experian The various packages and special deals can be dizzying; there’s no Chinese menu where you can pick and pay for only what you need. Here are the packages with prices current in March 2015. (Notice other deals being offered? “Like many online companies,” a company representative wrote in an email interview, “we do test prices from time to time.”) 

• Experian Credit Tracker: $21.95/month, including Experian credit report, which is refreshed automatically on login (daily), your FICO credit score, also refreshed automatically on login (daily) and email or SMS alerts about key changes 

• 3-Bureau Credit report and FICO scores: $39.95, for access to your FICO scores from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, plus what credit factors raise or lower your scores. This is a one-time pull of your reports: although the information won't be updated after your first access, the initial reports remain available for you to refer to for 180 days. 

• Experian Credit Report and FICO Score: $19.95, for instant online access to Experian credit report and FICO score, plus factors that lower and raise your score

• Trial Offer: $1 for Experian credit report and your FICO score, with a 7-day trial of Experian Credit Tracker. Here’s the fine print: “When you order your $1 Credit Report & FICO Score, you will begin your 7-day trial membership in Experian Credit Tracker. If you don’t cancel your membership within the 7-day trial period, you will be billed $21.95 for each month that you continue your membership. You may cancel your trial membership any time within the trial period without charge.” (Terms of test offers may change from time to time.)

WHAT EACH OFFERS THAT’S UNIQUE

Credit Karma Based on your credit profile (and the anonymous data from 35 million other members), Credit Karma recommends credit cards that will save you money and for which you’re likely to be approved. Its website is oriented not just to giving you access to your credit ratings but to improving them. It has various financial calculators, as well as lists of credit factors that go into your credit score – with a personalized grade for each and suggestions for how various actions will affect those factors. (For more, read Finding Credit Karma’s 5 Best Tools.) Get regular financial tips @creditkarma on Twitter, and discover the impact of your credit rating on your financial life via this Credit Karma infographic

Experian has an identity theft package ($15.95/mo) called ProtectMyID, which provides daily monitoring of your Experian, Equifax and TransUnion credit reports with email alert notifications when key changes occur, and access to a real person (not an online wizard or self-serve form) for fraud resolution as well as $1 million identity theft insurance coverage. For credit questions, the Experian credit hotline also leads to a real person with credit knowledge who can answer questions about your credit, right down to offering you a step-by-step walkthrough of your credit report. On Twitter @experian and YouTube, every Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern Time, a live #CreditChat covers financial topics like raising your credit score and frugal ways to go green. 

THE BOTTOM LINE

It's hard to beat the everything-is-free policy of Credit Karma and its user-friendly website with personalized tips on improving your credit rating. On the other hand, Experian will give you access, for a price, to your FICO score and your Experian credit report, neither of which is available on Credit Karma. Remember, too, that everyone has the right to a free credit report every 12 months from Experian and the other two major credit bureaus, via AnnualCreditReport.com, something the big three bureaus agreed recently to advertise more prominently on their websites.