Credit is important in many facets of most of our lives. Having good credit increases the likelihood of qualifying to borrow money and receiving low interest rates, in addition to influencing decisions made by insurance companies, landlords, utilities, and employers. There's no better way to monitor the state of your credit than by regularly reviewing your credit report, and fortunately, federal law guarantees you the right to free annual credit reports.
Although the process itself is fairly straightforward, being unfamiliar with the official methods of requesting your credit report and/or how often you can receive a report from the same company may make the exercise seem more daunting than it actually is. If you follow these steps, you shouldn't have any problems.
- There are three ways to request your credit report: phone, mail, or online.
- Make sure you have all of the necessary personal information, including your Social Security number, on hand before making your request.
- While you can request a credit report from all three credit reporting companies simultaneously, a better strategy would be to order one report at a time from a different company every four months.
- Once you've received a credit report, check your personally identifiable information (PII), credit accounts, credit inquiries, as well as public records and collections closely for any errors or suspicious activity.
- Once you know how to request your credit report and what to look for when reading it, be sure to repeat the process at regular intervals.
1. Determine How You Want to Request Your Report
You are entitled to a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three major consumer credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You can request and review your credit report in one of the following ways:
- Online: Complete the online application process on AnnualCreditReport.com, the official government website for requesting a credit report.
- Phone: Call (877) 322-8228
- Mail: Download and complete the Annual Credit Report Request form. The completed form should then be mailed to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281
Be on the lookout for suspicious websites that offer free credit reports, especially those mimicking the name and design of AnnualCreditReport.com. Some websites will only give you a free report if you buy their products or services, while others will give you a free report and then bill you for services you have to cancel. To ensure you're going to the correct site, you can type www.AnnualCreditReport.com into your web browser address line or visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)'s website. If you find a link to AnnualCreditReport.com on a site you don't trust or in an email, play it safe and don't click on it.
You are also eligible for additional free credit reports if any of the following applies to you:
- If you received a notice that you were denied credit, insurance, or employment or experienced another adverse action based on a credit report, you have a right to a free report from the credit reporting company identified in the notice. You must request this report within 60 days after you receive the notice.
- You believe your file is inaccurate due to fraud.
- You have requested a credit report from a nationwide credit reporting company in connection with the placing of an initial fraud alert (you may request two free copies for an extended fraud alert).
- You are unemployed and intend to apply for employment within 60 days from the date of your request.
- You are a recipient of public welfare assistance.
- Your state law provides for a free credit report.
In addition to Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, you are also eligible for credit reports from specialty consumer reporting companies. You will have to request a report from each of these companies individually and while many will provide a credit report for free every 12 months, other companies may charge you a fee outright. The CFPB has put together a list of several of these companies, which is updated annually.
2. Have Your Personal Information Ready
In order to request a credit report, you will have to provide several pieces of personal information, specifically your full name, date of birth, mailing address, Social Security number (SSN), and (if you've moved within the last two years) your previous mailing address. Additional information may be required to process your request, in which case the consumer credit reporting company you requested your credit report from will contact you by mail. As this information is used to identify you for the request process, omission of any information when filing by mail may delay your request.
Although most of this information should be known to you, some details (such as your SSN and previous mailing address) may be harder to recall. While you can simply pause when filling out a mailing request form or an online application, failing to have all of this information on hand while making a request by phone could result in a slower application process or having to start over at a later time.
When requesting your credit report online, you will be asked several security questions about your finances that only you should be capable of answering (e.g., date of taking out a specific auto loan, your mortgage payment amount, etc.). As these questions will vary from person to person, it can be difficult to adequately prepare for them. Note that, should you request your credit report by mail or phone, you may not be required to answer any security questions.
3. Make a Request for Your Credit Report
Once you have chosen how you want to request a credit report and have all of your personal information ready, it's time to make or submit your request. You can either request a report from all three companies simultaneously or you can order one at a time. In regards to the latter, by spacing out your requests for each company's report (e.g., Equifax first, then Experian four months later, followed by TransUnion after another four months, and then repeat), you can consistently monitor your credit health over time at no cost to you. After you’ve received your free annual credit report from one company, you can still request another from the same agency, though you may be charged up to $13.50 for each subsequent report until 12 months have passed since your prior request.
4. Read Your Credit Report Closely for Errors
Once you have received a credit report, it's crucial to read it closely to verify that all of the following information is accurate:
- Personally identifiable information (PII): Your name, address, SSN, date of birth, and employment information.
- Credit accounts: Type of account(s) (credit card, auto loan, mortgage, etc.), the date you opened the account(s), your credit limit or loan amount, the account balance(s), and your payment history (i.e., whether you paid on time).
- Credit inquiries: A list of everyone who has accessed your credit report within the last two years, including both soft and hard inquiries. When you apply for a loan, you're giving the lender authorization to ask for a copy of your credit report.
- Public record and collections: Credit bureaus can collect public record information from state and county courts, including bankruptcies. Additionally, if you have any overdue debt that was turned over to a collection agency, this will also appear on your credit report.
While it's still a good idea to check for errors such as a variation of your name or an old address, personal information like this isn't used to calculate your credit scores and, as such, isn't as crucial to have corrected. However, if the name or address on your credit report don't correspond to anything you go by or anywhere you've lived, respectively, then that could be a sign of some suspicious activity, such as identity theft.
If you find any mistakes on your credit report, you can dispute these by contacting both the respective credit reporting company and the business that provided the incorrect information (also known as the furnisher). You should explain in writing what the error is, why it's wrong, and include copies of documents that support your claim.
Note that while your credit report is used to calculate your credit scores, the information in your report doesn't include the scores themselves. Your credit scores are created by different companies or lenders, who may each have different credit scoring systems. You can get your credit scores from several sources, such as paying for them from the three major credit reporting agencies.
Additional instructions, as well as template letters for disputing incorrect information on your credit report with both the credit reporting company and furnisher, are available on the CFPB's website. Contact information for the three major consumer credit reporting companies is also available.
5. Repeat the Process at Regular Intervals
Once you know how to request and read your credit report, it's crucial to repeat the above steps at regular intervals in order to continuously monitor the state of your credit. In addition to giving you a means of tracking how your credit is growing, this practice will also enable you to better keep an eye out for potential problems or mistakes. As previously mentioned, this can easily be achieved by spacing out your free annual credit report from each of the three major credit reporting companies throughout the year.
How Can You Get a Free Annual Credit Report?
You have three options for requesting your free annual credit report:
- Online: You can request a copy directly from AnnualCreditReport.com
- Phone: Call (877) 322-8228
- Mail: Download and mail the complete the Annual Credit Report Request form to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281
What Is the Best Website to Get a Credit Report?
AnnualCreditReport.com is the official government website for requesting your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus (i.e., Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion).
Does Requesting Your Free Annual Credit Report Result in a Hard Inquiry?
Requesting a copy of your credit report is a soft inquiry. Unlike hard inquiries, soft inquiries do not affect your credit scores nor are they visible to potential lenders. They are only visible to you and will remain on your credit report for up to 24 months.
The Bottom Line
Although just a five-step process, there are enough rules, exceptions, as well as bad-faith actors that, if you don't know what to look out for, requesting your free credit report can be a bit confusing, to say the least. Even so, determining the method and schedule for requesting your credit reports that best suits your needs will make it much easier to monitor your credit history and, in doing so, safeguard your financial health.