A credit freeze is like a padlock on the credit reports kept by the three major credit bureaus. But how long does a credit freeze last?
The short answer is: until you decide to lift it. A credit freeze is one way to protect your credit against potential fraud. If you're concerned about identity theft, data breaches, or someone getting access to your credit reports without your permission, here’s what you need to know about the timing of credit freezes versus other measures you can take.
The Timing of a Credit Freeze
A credit freeze, sometimes known as a security freeze, stays in place until you contact the credit bureau that issued the freeze and ask for it to be lifted. While it can take one business day for a credit freeze to take effect, the credit bureaus are required to lift it within one hour if you make your request by phone or online. If you ask for a credit freeze to be reversed by mail, it can take up to three business days once the credit bureau receives the notice. (Mail is the only method allowed if you are making the request for your minor child.)
Thanks to a law passed in 2018, it's totally free to freeze or unfreeze your credit reports.
Credit Freezes vs. Credit Alerts
A credit freeze prevents businesses and lenders from seeing your credit report in order to open new accounts in your name. A credit alert, also called a fraud alert, just requires them to verify your identity by checking with you (calling you on the phone, for instance) before opening new accounts.
Unlike a credit freeze, a credit alert has a finite time frame: one year. (Before 2018, it was 90 days.) You can renew it for another year once it expires. If you've been a victim of identity theft, you're entitled to an extended fraud alert, which lasts for seven years.
Credit Freezes vs. Credit Locks
A credit lock is similar to a credit freeze, but it can be applied or removed almost instantly either online or through a mobile app offered by the credit bureaus. Unlike a credit freeze, its protections aren’t guaranteed by law and there may be a fee.
Why You Should or Shouldn't Freeze
A credit freeze may not be the best approach if it’s possible you may forget you have one in place or if you are prone to sudden changes in your life. Here are some instances when the timing of a credit freeze could cause problems:
- You're planning to buy a home. One of the first things lenders do when you apply for a mortgage is to check your credit. If you haven’t lifted your credit freeze, your purchase could be delayed.
- You're starting a business. You may need to get credit from your suppliers. If you don't have a business credit history yet, they'll check your personal credit. A freeze could make getting your business going harder.
- You don't have emergency savings. You may need a credit card quickly to cover an unexpected expense, so a credit freeze could put you in a bind.
In these scenarios, however, a credit freeze could be the best alternative:
- You don't have any major financing needs. If you're not planning to get a mortgage, car loan, or other lines of credit in the near future, freezing your credit can protect it until you need to use it. Since freezes last indefinitely, they're a good option if you don't want to have to remember to renew.
- You've been a victim of identity theft. In this instance, a credit freeze could minimize the damage and prevent new fraud from happening. You could get a credit lock or credit alert instead, but a freeze is free and doesn't have to be renewed.
- Your information was part of a data breach. If you've been notified that your personal or financial information was compromised in a breach, placing a freeze on your credit file could be a better-safe-than-sorry move.
When It Makes Sense to Unfreeze
Here are some reasons you may want to lift your credit freeze, at least temporarily:
- You're cosigning a debt for someone. You might be helping your child take out private student loans for college, for example. In that case, your credit score will come under scrutiny.
- You're getting divorced. A divorce could put you in a tight spot financially, and you may need to use credit cards or loans to get through the transition.
- You think a credit alert would be easier. Requesting or lifting a credit freeze requires you to contact each of the three credit bureaus individually. With a credit alert, you only have to communicate with one bureau (which will then notify the other two,) and the alert will expire on its own.
- You don’t mind paying the possible fees associated with a credit lock. If you want the most flexibility to do things last-minute, you may want to unfreeze your credit and opt for a credit lock.