Your credit score and credit report are pretty much the same thing, right? Far from it. Although a fair number of consumers conflate the two, each has different information that is used for different purposes.

Key Takeaways

  • A credit report is a detailed look at your finances, assembled all in one place.
  • It contains detailed data on your financial history, assembled in four categories: identifying information, credit accounts, credit inquiries, and public records.
  • A credit score is a numerical rating that rates your credit report in the same way that a teacher grades a student’s educational performance.
  • It is used by lenders as a shortcut to decide whether or not to grant you credit.

What Is a Credit Report?

Actually, we should say “credit reports,” because there are three. The United States has a trio of national credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—that compete to offer the most comprehensive information to their customers. Those customers could include mortgage lenders, car loan providers, insurers, collection agencies, landlords, potential and current employers—and you. 

Unlike your credit score, your credit report provides detailed information on your financial history with loans, credit cards, and charge cards. It has four categories: identifying information, credit accounts, credit inquiries, and public records. If you’re delinquent on any of your bills, then your credit reports will likely show it. It also gives the reader information on the number of accounts that you have open, their outstanding balances, and a host of other details.

Each report may be slightly different. That’s why it’s important to look at all three when judging your credit health. Depending on the lender’s methodology, your activity may or may not find its way to all of your reports. In other instances, the information may be incorrect or missing altogether. A business doesn’t have to report to all of the credit bureaus—or to any of them, for that matter. And it’s not necessarily the bureau’s fault if the information is incorrect or missing. The lender may have erred in reporting or transmitting the data.

You’re entitled to a copy of your credit reports from all three bureaus once every 12 months. Even better, you can get them for free. The Big Three sponsor a government-sanctioned site, AnnualCreditReport.com, that provides applications for getting your reports. Other websites may offer the reports to you as part of a promotion or paid membership. Some may try to trick you into thinking that you’re on the official site. Don’t fall for it. Make sure the web address in your browser says “annualcreditreport.com,” and don’t go to the site from another link. Type it directly into your browser to avoid fraud.

You are entitled to a free copy of each of your credit reports once every year; they can be accessed through the government-sanctioned website AnnualCreditReport.com.

What Is a Credit Score?

Many lenders, especially credit card companies, don’t much care what is on your credit report. They’re not interested in digging through all of the data and judging how much of a credit risk you represent. Instead, they pay somebody else to do it for them. Although there are other scoring companies, such as VantageScore, FICO (formerly the Fair Isaac Corporation) so dominates the field that the terms “credit score” and “FICO score” are often used interchangeably.

Whichever company is calculating it, your credit score—in essence, a “snapshot of your credit report,” as Bethy Hardeman, former senior manager for product marketing at Credit Karma, a credit advisory website, puts it—summarizes your creditworthiness (much as your grade summarizes your performance in a course). You can have a score as low as 300 and as high as 850. The higher your score, the less risk you represent. It is calculated using five weighted categories:

  • Payment history (35%)
  • Amounts owed (30%)
  • Length of credit history (15%)
  • Credit mix (10%)
  • New credit (10%)

Remember those three credit bureau reports? FICO calculates a score based on each of them. Different lenders also use different scoring models—not necessarily just from FICO—so people generally have multiple credit scores.

Unfortunately, you aren’t entitled to automatically receive your credit scores for free, the way you are with your credit reports. You might have to pay for them. The Dodd-Frank Act gives you the right to see your credit score from any creditor that used it to make a credit decision. Many credit card companies and other financial institutions now provide it free of charge. Advisory services such as Credit Karma also can give you a free score. Beware, though: Some websites and services may offer a “free” score, but it often comes with expensive membership fees or other conditions that you likely don’t want.

Credit Score vs. Credit Report: Key Differences

The difference between a credit score and a credit report is that the former is a single numerical grade, while the latter is a compilation of information that provides a detailed look at your financial situation. They are different but linked, as the score is derived from the report. Both can be used by lenders to decide whether or not to grant you credit.

Your credit score is important, but if you really want to dig into your credit and review your history, then you need your credit reports. If you’re looking to raise your credit score, the first step is to clean up the reports. Correct any errors and pinpoint the weak spots (such as where your biggest outstanding balances are) that you need to improve. Bear in mind, though, that any positive change to your credit score takes time, despite what those breathless mail and email notices offering to “raise your FICO score within weeks!” may claim.