There’s something you should know about the scores you get from free credit scoring services: They usually are not the same FICO scores that lenders pull. The free scores are sometimes called “equivalency scores” or “educational scores” (and, derisively, “FAKO” scores). In this article, we’ll examine the reasons for the differences between the free scores you can get from websites such as CreditKarma.com, CreditSesame.com, Credit.com, and WalletHub.com, as well as banks and credit card companies, and the credit scores that lenders use. 

Key Takeaways

  • It is possible to get your credit scores for free, principally through banks and credit card companies.
  • Not all free credit scores, however, are the industry-standard FICO score.
  • The three top credit bureaus created the VantageScore as an alternative to FICO, but it is not yet as popular.
  • Everyone has multiple credit scores, both at FICO and at VantageScore.

Each Credit Bureau Has Different Data

First, let’s clear up a misconception. The free credit scores are, in fact, real. However, they may only give you a general idea of where you stand with a particular creditor. 

One limitation of getting your credit score from only one source is that your FICO score with each of the top three credit scoring bureaus—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—is usually different. That’s due in part to the fact that lenders can choose whether to report to one, two, or all three of the major credit bureaus, or they can choose not to report at all.

In addition, each bureau weighs the data in your credit report somewhat differently when calculating your credit score, though FICO says that this results in only minor variations at most. Further, a lender might pull your scores from all three credit bureaus, or it might just pull one (though FICO claims that “most” lenders use all three). When you only know your score with one bureau, you aren’t seeing the whole picture.

Lenders can choose to report information to any, all, or none of the three major credit bureaus.

Lenders Use Tailored Credit Scores

Different lenders pull different credit scores, and sometimes these scores are tailored specifically to the type of loan for which you’re applying. TransUnion’s Account Management Model, for example, is designed to help institutions evaluate their existing accounts, identify their most profitable account holders, and discern which account holders are most likely to become delinquent.

The TransUnion New Account Score, available for free from Credit Karma, helps financial institutions identify the risk posed by prospective customers. (Credit Karma also shows your credit score from Equifax for free.) TransUnion even has credit scoring models for specific types of lenders and creditors, such as auto lenders, insurance companies, and utility companies.

Experian has different credit scoring models as well. The Experian National Equivalency Score, available to customers of the free credit score website Credit Sesame, is a score that financial institutions use to screen their offer solicitation lists, evaluate loan and credit applications, and identify opportunities to sell more financial products to existing customers. This score can range from a low of 360 to a high of 840, while FICO scores range from 300 to 850.

Equifax also offers customized credit scoring models.

The only way to know for sure which credit score a lender is using for you is to apply for that lender’s loan.

Some Lenders Use VantageScore, Not FICO

The VantageScore is a newer scoring model created by a collaboration among the three major credit bureaus. They wanted to create a score that is more consistent from one bureau to the next and more accurate compared with traditional FICO scores. Though the VantageScore is not as widely used as the FICO score, it has caught on among free credit score providers because of the ways in which it makes up for the shortcomings of the traditional models.

The VantageScore model most widely used now, VantageScore 3.0, scores consumers using a range from 300 to 850, just like a FICO score. (Earlier VantageScores used a 501 to 990 range.) However, VantageScore assigns different weights to the five factors that determine your credit score in contrast with traditional FICO scores.

VantageScore is also more forgiving to individuals with shorter credit histories. Because of that, it can create a credit score for people who wouldn’t qualify for a FICO score at all. Indeed, the company claims to generate scores for 40 million people who previously didn’t qualify for a credit score. In addition, though FICO treats all late payments the same, VantageScore judges them differently (late mortgage payments are worse for a credit score than a different type of late payment, for example). FICO 8 scores are more forgiving of collections of small-balance debt, ignoring any under $100.

VantageScore 4.0 was introduced in fall 2017, but it has yet to be adopted widely and is still not offered to consumers by free credit score companies as of the end of 2020. It uses the familiar 300 to 850 scoring scale and attempts to widen credit scoring by ignoring tax liens, civil judgments, and medical debt collection amounts. For now, VantageScore 3.0 is the standard. If you get a free credit score from any of the following providers (not a complete list), it’s likely to be via VantageScore 3.0 for some time to come.

  • Credit.com
  • CreditKarma.com
  • CreditSesame.com
  • CreditWise.com
  • LendingTree.com
  • Mint.Intuit.com
  • WisePiggy.com
  • CreditNerd.com
  • NerdWallet.com
  • WalletHub.com

Credit Score Criteria Ranked

Different scoring methods assign different weights to the factors that determine your credit score.

VantageScore

  • Payment history (40%)
  • Depth of credit (21%)
  • Credit utilization (20%)
  • Credit balances (11%)
  • Recent credit (5%)
  • Available credit (3%)

FICO Score

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

Credit Score Variations

Just as each of the three major credit bureaus issues its own FICO score based on the consumer’s information with that bureau, each also issues its own VantageScore based on the consumer’s information with that bureau. A VantageScore from TransUnion will be the same as a VantageScore from Equifax if both TransUnion and Equifax have identical information on a consumer.

As there are usually differences in the information reported to each bureau, however, consumers can still have different VantageScores, just as they can have different FICO scores. However, 90% of those scores only vary within a 40-point range, according to VantageScore.

Free FICO Scores

Credit card issuers that offer free FICO credit scores (not a complete list) include: 

  • Ally Bank (auto loan customers only)
  • Discover
  • Bank of America
  • First National Bank of Omaha
  • Barclays
  • Citi
  • Commerce Bank
  • Wells Fargo

The Bottom Line

With any free credit score, it’s important to understand the limitations of what you’re getting—that the score you see might not be the same one a lender or creditor will use when deciding whether to take you on as a customer. The best type of free credit score to get is an actual FICO score from Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion, because these are the scores the vast majority of lenders use. Still, you won’t know exactly which score a particular lender uses unless you apply for a specific loan.