A credit score is a numeric valuation that lenders use, along with your credit report, to evaluate the risk of offering you a loan or providing credit to you. The FICO score is the most commonly used of the credit scores. It is calculated using different pieces of data from your credit report, including:

  • payment history: 35%
  • amount of debt relative to credit limit (credit utilization): 30%
  • length of credit history (the longer the better): 15%
  • types of credit in use (having current installment loans and revolving lines like credit cards helps): 10%
  • new credit/recent credit applications (a hard inquiry can ding your credit for several months): 10%

Your credit score affects your ability to qualify for different types of credit – such as car loans and mortgages – and the terms you’ll be offered. In general, the higher your credit score, the easier it is to qualify for credit and obtain favorable terms. Because a lot could be riding on your credit score, it pays to keep track of it and to work towards improving it, when necessary. You can get a free credit report from each of the three big credit agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – but they will charge a fee if you want to see your actual credit score. The good news: You may be able to get your score for free from your bank or credit card issuer; here’s how.

Key Takeaways

  • Credit scores are important metrics of creditworthiness that can determine whether you get a loan, what interest rates you pay on debts, and more.
  • Credit agencies and the government allow consumers to access their full credit report for free on a limited basis, but the credit score itself may be pay-walled.
  • Banks and credit card issuers, however, are increasingly giving their customers free access to regularly updated credit scores for free along with credit updates and alerts.

Changing Times

It used to be that if you wanted to see your credit score, you’d have to fork over some cash, either for a monthly subscription service or a one-time look. But since 2013, FICO (the Fair Isaac Corporation) has allowed lenders to make the previously difficult-to-obtain scores available to consumers for free through its FICO Score Open Access program. FICO announced in February 2018 that 250 million people can now get their credit scores for free through the program and that more than 100 financial institutions and eight of the top 10 credit card issuers participate in the Open Access program.

Barclaycard US and First Bankcard (the credit card end of First National Bank of Omaha) were the first to sign on (in 2013) when the program launched, and since then others have joined in, including Citibank, Chase, Discover, Digital Credit Union, the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, U.S. Bank and North Carolina’s State Employees’ Credit Union. Ally Financial began offering free credit scores to auto loan customers in 2015, and Bank of America subsequently made credit scores available to cardholders for free.

Getting Your Score

If your bank or credit card issuer offers free credit scores, you should be able to check your score either online by logging into your account, or by reviewing your monthly statement. If you’re not sure whether your bank provides access to free scores, or if you have trouble finding your score, contact customer service for assistance. There are other resources to see your credit score or credit report for free, as well. If you're wondering whether you should pay to see your credit score, the answer is probably "no."

In addition to free credit scores, some banks offer benefits designed to help you understand – and improve – your score. First National Bank, for example, gives you 24/7 online access to your FICO score and shows you which key score factors have affected your number. And Barclaycard US provides your credit score, plus up to two factors that affect it, a historical chart that tracks it and email alerts any time your credit score has changed. 

It’s important to note that not all credit scores are created equal, and the various banks and credit card issuers may provide access to different scores. Soon after the launch of the FICO Score Open Access Program, credit bureau Experian introduced a similar program, which allows banks to share its VantageScore credit score with consumers. 

Today, these two systems operate on the same 300 to 850 point scale, and each uses similar criteria to calculate the scores, but they weigh each item differently. With FICO, for example, your payment history represents 35% of your score; for VantageScore, it accounts for around 40%. The result: The two scores will generally differ, even for the same person, on the same day. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to be aware of so that you can make sure you are comparing apples to apples when tracking your scores.

What’s Free, What's Not

The Fair And Accurate Credit Transactions Act passed in 2003 calls for all Americans to have free access to each of the three bureaus’ (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) credit reports once every 12 months. AnnualCreditReport.com, a site sponsored by the three credit bureaus, is the easiest and most comprehensive site to use to obtain those free reports.

You can also receive one free credit report if you have been a victim of fraud or identity theft, have been denied credit or have had a change in your current credit (interest rates, credit lines, etc.) as a result of your credit – or if you’re offered a higher interest rate than other consumers get from a creditor.

“A person denied credit or who has an unfavorable change to the terms of their agreement will be sent an adverse action notice informing them of the denial or change," says Cunningham. "The reason for the change will be included in the document, along with the name and address of the credit bureau which supplied the information. In that instance, consumers can obtain their credit report for free within 60 days of the denial.”

However, the law does not provide an annual free look at your credit score. And you can't obtain a free credit score via AnnualCreditReport.com. But that doesn't mean you can't see those three little numbers for free. Since 2011, adverse credit-related actions such as changes in credit limit or interest based on a credit score give consumers the right to view the credit score used in the determination.

“You can also purchase your FICO score,” says Cunningham.

MyFICO.com allows consumers to purchase their FICO score from any of the three credit bureaus for $19.95 per FICO score report. You may also purchase the consumer version of your credit score directly from one of the credit bureaus or other sites, but beware: That number may be different (usually higher) than your FICO score. MyFICO says a person’s consumer score could be as much as 40 points higher than their FICO score.

“This is why the lending process is confusing,” says Cunningham. “The three-digit number a lender uses may not be the same number a borrower sees. That’s why – despite sites offering free scores – it is worth it to purchase the FICO score, since that’s what is used by 90% of creditors and lenders.”

Some Free Credit Score Sites

Many banks and credit card companies now offer their customers a regularly updated snapshot of their credit score for free, however the calculations may vary from company to company. Despite the differences, if you want to see the consumer version of your FICO score, the most reputable sites include:

“Consumers need to understand these are not affiliated with the mandated government website AnnualCreditReport.com, and the credit score provided is not a FICO credit score, which is used by a majority of potential lenders,” cautions Freeman.

These sites don't require you to provide your credit card to check your score, which means you can check it as often as you want at no cost. “The caveat is, I’ve seen these scores be inflated as much as 60 to 70 points higher than the FICO score banks and other lenders will see,” says Pamela Capalad, a certified financial planner and adviser in New York City.

“You may also be able to obtain a free copy of the FICO score lenders and banks see by requesting the score from a creditor or lender if you’ve recently applied for credit,” says Freeman. Some lenders will share that information even if you haven't been denied credit.

Even though free consumer credit scores aren’t FICO scores, there’s a good case to be made for reviewing them. “They can be great indicators of overall credit health, alert consumers to potential fraud issues, etc.,” says Thomas Nitzsche, senior media relations coordinator, ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions.

And check your wallet for a free look at your credit score. Some credit cards, such as the Discover it® Card, offer you a free FICO score (the genuine banks-and-lenders version) based on your TransUnion credit report once every month with your statement.

The Bottom Line

Your credit score affects your ability to obtain credit, and the terms you’ll be offered. Up until recently, the credit score industry was fairly covert, and it was difficult (or expensive) for most people to get their hands on their score. Today, however, a growing number of banks and credit card issuers provide credit scores free of charge, which is hugely valuable for consumers trying to track and improve their credit health