You can get your credit reports for free, but what about your credit score? Unfortunately, there is no law that forces FICO or any other credit-scoring company to give your credit score to you once per year.
The only way you can get the score is an unhappy one: If you're turned down for a loan – or don’t receive the most favorable terms – because the lender negatively evaluated your creditworthiness based on your credit score, you’re entitled to see the score they used. You can thank the Dodd-Frank Act for that.
But what if you weren’t turned down for a loan and you don’t want to pay for your score? There are some ways to get your hands on it.
Websites to Investigate
A number of websites will give you your credit score at no cost to you.
Perhaps the best known online source is Credit Karma. The company offers its more than 40 million subscribers free access to their credit scores. Bethy Hardeman, chief consumer advocate at Credit Karma, notes that her company "provides credit scores from Equifax and TransUnion based on the VantageScore 3.0 scoring model, one of the most widely accepted models used in the financial industry to make lending decisions.” Vantage is an alternative to FICO, used by more than 2,000 lenders, according to Hardeman.
She continues, “Unlike competitors who offer a tiered model of service, all of Credit Karma’s products and services are always free. Credit Karma users can pull their credit scores and full credit reports from two major credit bureaus with information updated on a weekly basis. Based on an individual user’s credit profile, Credit Karma provides tailored financial product recommendations utilizing our deep integrations with our partners and their underwriting models. For our over 40 million members, we make managing personal finance simpler.”
The Catch: There is no catch. The score is absolutely free. Like most sites offering free information, Credit Karma gets paid through advertising partnerships. According to Hardeman, “Traditionally, advertising financial services has been tricky for banks. If a consumer’s credit is too low, they get declined, which is a frustrating experience. Each person the banks turn away is less likely to apply in the future. For the banks, it leads to a large amount of marketing inefficiency, which Credit Karma helps solve.”
She continues, “Credit Karma gets paid when we give our members the most benefit, recommending them financial products more suitable for their credit profile and helping them save money. When we’re doing our job well, banks are turning away fewer customers, our members are better informed about their personal finance choices and we’re able to provide our service for free. What was once a lose-lose, is now a win-win-win.”
Credit Sesame offers customers their Experian score. Like Credit Karma, you don’t have to give them your credit card number to get it.
The Catch: It’s a free service but Credit Sesame is hoping that you’ll sign up for one of its premium services that range from $9.95 to $19.95 per month.
Bankrate began furnishing customers with their FICO score based on their Equifax report. According to Ted Rossman, public relations director at Bankrate, “We offer a free VantageScore each month as well as score analysis (a complete understanding of what makes up your credit score and the top four things you can focus on to improve it), trending information (graphs that show changes to your credit score over time), a timeline (showing your key credit milestones) and comparisons (including credit report changes that could have impacted your credit score and help identifying fraud). We also offer free identity theft protection and helpful credit card offers, mortgage rates and auto loan rates.”
The Catch: According to Rossman, “myBankrate is completely free to consumers,” but like other sites, they can offer the service because of partnerships with other financial companies.
This site also offers a 100% free credit score without having to enter a credit card number. Its score is a TransUnion product called the TransRisk Score. According to Kari Luckett, editor of CompareCards: “We began offering this free service to consumers because we understand that about half of Americans don’t know their credit score. It’s important to know your credit score before you apply for a credit card so you can make sure you are applying for the right credit product that fits your credit profile. Our goal with Credit Concierge is for customers to utilize our service in two ways: to check their credit before applying to improve their chances of approval (Otherwise they risk a hard inquiry on their credit report [see Credit Score: Hard Vs. Soft Inquiry], possibly without receiving the card they applied for); and to stay on top of their credit health by continuing to check their credit every month for changes."
The Catch: Same as the others. There is no catch. You can thank the financial service companies that partner with the site.
Real, but Not Exactly
Todd Christensen, author of “Everyday Money for Everyday People,” suggests caution in interpreting these scores. “It's important to note that the free credit scores available are typically not actual credit scores, but listed as educational scores. Even most of those listed as FICO scores are not the FICO models used by most lenders. That said, these scores can still provide a valuable service to consumers. If a sudden and unexpected drop in our score occurs from one month to the next, it can be an indication of possible fraud and should lead to the consumer immediately investigating their credit report in depth. This can minimize (although not avoid) the impact of identity fraud or reporting errors.”
Christensen also advises being cautious about the products you may be offered. “Most of these sites provide their services in the hope of selling the consumer a financial product for one of their partners. These products might include refinancing a home, opening a new credit card account, securing a mortgage or car loan, or signing up for identity protection or credit report monitoring. I usually suggest that people do their research when looking for such services and definitely not accept these product offers out of hand. Many offers are no better than what the consumer could find doing a simple online search.”
The Bottom Line
Knowing your credit score is as important as knowing what’s in your credit file. That’s why government agencies are pushing companies to disclose customers’ credit score for free. Some websites will give you a score absolutely free.
A growing number of credit card companies will also provide free credit scores for members. These include Barclaycard, "select" Citi Cards, Discover, First Bankcard, U.S. Bank and Capital One. Each also offers a variant on your credit score.
But none of these scores are likely to be your true FICO score. To get that, you might have to pay some money (see Should I Pay to Check My Credit Score?).
But unless you’re actively pursuing credit – to purchase a home, for example – these free scores might be enough. For more information, see Top Places To Get A Free Credit Score Or Report, FICO or FAKO? The Limitations of Free Credit Scores and Free Credit Score: Is It Really Free?