How Free Credit Scores Really Work

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It’s easy to get a free credit report—federal law says that we all get to view credit reports once per year at no cost. But free credit scores are much harder to come by.

Credit scores are the numbers that lenders use to evaluate you as a borrower. Those numbers are generated by computers that go through your credit report, and they often make the difference between getting approved and getting denied. So do you have to pay to find out what your score is?

Promises of free credit scores rarely pan out. You'll quickly find that companies advertising free scores intend to charge you sooner or later. But there are a few ways to get truly free scores—although sometimes you get what you pay for. Let's dig into your options below.

Types of Credit Scores

You might be surprised to learn that you have numerous credit scores—not just one. For starters, each credit bureau generates a credit score, and each scoring model creates its own score—and there are plenty of scoring models. Before you take a score too seriously, find out what type of score it is.

The most important score right now is the FICO score. This number is the one lenders usually use for the most important loans—such as mortgages, auto loans, and credit cards. Other scores, such as VantageScore, might become increasingly popular, but FICO scores are the most valuable scores.

Any score can help you figure out if you have “good” or “bad” credit. If your score is high, then you’re doing well. When you have a lower score you need to learn what factors might be hurting your score. However, the specific number you get might not be helpful unless you’re looking at a true FICO score.

Free Credit Scores From Lenders

Next time you borrow, ask for a freebie. Any time you apply for a loan, your lender most likely gets a FICO score as part of the lending process. Ask your lender to tell you what your score is. They may not know that you’re curious, and they're generally happy to share that information with you.

In addition to traditional lenders, peer-to-peer lenders and other online loan outlets often provide a free credit score—or some indication of where your score is—if you sign up for their services.

If lenders, based on your credit score, decide not to approve your loan (or decide to offer less favorable terms), they must provide the credit score they used.

It’s easy to get a free credit score when you apply for a loan, but you may want to get the scoop more often. Some banks provide free FICO credit scores with monthly updates if you use their credit card. For example, Chase Slate customers can see a chart showing how their FICO score has changed over time. Your credit card company regularly checks your credit anyway (to see if you’re falling on hard times, or if they should increase your credit limit), so it’s easy for them to provide this service.

Promotional Free Credit Scores

The web is full of sites promising free credit scores. With these sites, you’ll generally sign up for a trial offer, get to see your scores, and then have to pay a subscription fee (after a month or so). However, you can cancel the subscription and skip the payments.

While this method can get you a free credit score from time to time, you have to jump through a lot of hoops to do all the trial offers (and you have to remember to cancel your subscription to avoid paying). In addition, you’re submitting sensitive personal details to different websites, so the risk of identity theft increases. Finally, your name and contact information end up in a lot of marketing databases and you have to pay the price (in the form of a marketing onslaught) for years to come.

Free Credit Scores From Alternative Scorers

Again, the FICO credit score is really the most important score for major loans. However, you can get alternative custom-made scores from different businesses. Credit bureaus and personal finance websites that specialize in credit issues offer these scores, sometimes for free. They're based on some of the same information used in your FICO score, and they evaluate your credit using a similar philosophy.

Need a few examples? The sites below offer free scores (that might not be FICO scores) to members. This list is not an endorsement of these companies, and there’s no guarantee that you’re getting a good deal, but these are the popular ones:

  • Credit Karma
  • Quizzle
  • Credit Sesame

Alternative scores do not use the same FICO algorithm that your lender uses. Sometimes they're called "FAKO" scores. But, they can give you some idea of how what lenders think of your credit. Beware that in the past these scores tended to be a bit higher than your FICO score—perhaps nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news.