What is a credit report?

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Credit reports are often likened to your high school transcript. It’s a pretty good comparison. Credit reports document all your lines of credit and how well you manage them, like grades for individual classes. Credit scoring models like FICO and VantageScore crunch that information into your credit score, your overall GPA.

And, like our transcripts, we don’t get to control what gets reported, nor do we get to opt out of being graded. Many aspects of our lives are tracked by organizations; where we go, what we buy, and what we search online. The same goes for our credit. That said, you have a modicum of control over your credit, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act affords you certain rights that you can use to boost your credit score. Here’s everything you need to know.

A credit report documents your credit-related activity and history collected by the three major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Scoring models such as FICO or VantageScore turn the information on your credit report into a credit score. The algorithms they use are kept hidden from consumers, but we have a general idea of how FICO and VantageScore calculate your credit score using your credit history. 

With all the information your credit report contains, it’s one of the best tools for third parties to gauge how well you manage your finances. Creditors and other third parties use your credit report, which they buy from the credit bureaus, and credit scores to assess you as a potential customer. However, the types of organizations that can access your credit report are limited.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act limits who can see your credit report. Of course, you, the consumer, get to see your own report. Government agencies also have access to your credit reports if they have a legitimate reason to see them. For example, they might pull your credit report to look for hidden income if you apply for public assistance. They might also look at your credit report to determine how much you need to pay for child support. Additionally, a credit bureau will provide a credit report if a court subpoenas it.

Several other organizations can view your credit report, but they must have a reason to view your credit report — what the FCRA calls a permissible purpose. “You can’t just check someone’s credit because you want to,” says Margaret Poe, head of consumer credit education at TransUnion.

Permissible purposes usually fall within the realms of credit, housing rentals, employment, and insurance underwriting. 

Creditors: The most self-explanatory purpose, creditors view your credit report to assess your risk level as a borrower. If you’ve had problems paying back your loans promptly and consistently, expect higher rates on loans or an outright rejection. Suppose you fall into deep delinquency with your creditor – the collections agency that they will hire to get you to repay your loans will also have access to your credit report.

When you apply for credit, creditors pull a hard inquiry, which will be recorded on your credit report and lower your credit score by a few points. Creditors can also pull a soft check on your credit to see if you qualify for preapproved offers. Soft inquiries do not show up on your credit report and have no bearing on your credit score. 

Landlords: Many landlords will factor your credit score into their rental decision. Some may even pull your credit report to see how responsibly you make payments. This credit pull is considered a soft inquiry since you’re not applying for new credit. 

Insurance companies: Insurance companies use your credit report in their underwriting and rating process, determining whether to insure you and how much they will charge you for premiums. They believe that financial stability correlates with losses, so if your credit report shows significant negative information, they may charge you higher premiums. 

Employers: In certain states, employers can pull your credit report with your consent. They will not be able to see your name, social security number, medical bills, income, or account numbers. They also can’t access your actual credit score. However, they will have access to everything else.

The practice is controversial given the credit gap that exists across race and age groups. However, there are certain industries, particularly in financial services and law enforcement, where credit checks are mandatory. For example, the Federal Bureau of Prisons conducts a credit check because corrections officers with significant outstanding debts may be more susceptible to bribes. 

The credit reports from each credit bureau have some slight variations in structure, but broadly speaking, they break down into four primary sections:

Personal information

Personal information is the most self-explanatory of the sections. It contains details such as:

You’ll want to ensure this information is correct, even if rectifying it keeps your credit score the same. Inaccuracies could be a sign of identity theft or a mixed credit file, where information from one credit account makes it onto another.


The accounts section makes up the bulk of your credit report. It shows information relating to all your open credit accounts, including installment loans, mortgages, and revolving credit, as well as closed accounts from up to 10 years ago. This section is also where credit scoring models derive most of the information used to calculate your credit scores. 

Here, you’ll find information such as:

If an inaccuracy is hurting your credit score, it will either be here or in the inquiries section. You may have a misreported credit limit or delinquency still on your credit report, even if it’s over seven years old. In the worst case scenario, you might see a credit line you didn’t take out, which you will want to dispute immediately.


This section is folded into your credit score as “new accounts” under FICO and “recent credit behavior and inquiries” for VantageScore. It will show all the times your credit report has been pulled for new credit lines or any other purpose. This section breaks down into two additional sections: hard inquiries and soft inquiries. 

Hard inquiries: These appear on your credit report when you apply for a new line of credit and other credit-related requests like an increase in your credit limit. One hard inquiry will hurt your credit score by a few points, but the effect will compound exponentially with each additional hard inquiry within a short period of time. A creditor might wonder why you’re borrowing so much at once and if you’re good for it. A hard inquiry will no longer factor into your credit score calculations after one year. They will fall off entirely after two years.

Soft inquiries: Soft inquiries do not affect your credit score, and they only show up on the credit reports you request for yourself. Soft inquiries include any credit reports you pulled to view your credit. Soft inquiries will also trigger whenever a creditor pulls your credit for promotional inquiries, or a landlord pulls a credit report for rental properties. 

Collections and public records

Hopefully, this section will be blank. This section shows bankruptcies and debts that have gone to collections. 

Bankruptcies: If you’ve had to file for bankruptcy, that will severely damage your credit score. These will stay on your credit report for 10 years before they fall off. 

Collections: This section shows your debts that have gone to collections, meaning your debt payment was late to the point where your creditor sent it to a collections agency. Creditors send debts to collections when your payment is overdue by 90 days.

Your credit report may also show sections for tax liens and monetary judgments, but credit reports no longer show this information. That said, if you have been involved in a tax lien or a monetary judgment, that is still public information that lenders will have access to. 

It’s a good idea to keep tabs on your credit reports throughout the year. This practice will give you a good idea of where you stand credit-wise but will also protect your credit from potential identity thieves. 

The FCRA gives consumers one free credit report from the three major credit bureaus. You can only access these reports through AnnualCreditReport.com. However, until December 31, 2023, you’re allowed to view your credit reports from each bureau weekly due to the pandemic. 

When 2024 rolls around, and we’re back to those three credit reports per year, it’s wise to budget your reports since they’re usually very similar. “You’re able to look every four months instead of all at once and then of waiting for 12 months,” Poe says.

You can gain additional credit reports in several instances. Suppose you’ve been denied credit or experienced any other adverse action due to your credit report. In that case, the FCRA allows you to view your credit report from the bureau used to reject your application. You are also entitled to a credit report from each bureau when you put a fraud alert on your credit, which compels lenders to confirm the identity of the person requesting credit.

You are also entitled to a credit report from each bureau when you put a fraud alert on your credit, which compels lenders to confirm the identity of the person requesting credit. These expire after a year, at which point you can request another alert and get those credit reports.

Aside from the free reports, you can also sign up for third-party credit monitoring services that will notify you of any changes to your credit report, so you can catch any potential identity theft immediately. The best credit monitoring services have added benefits, such as additional identity theft services like password protection. 

Discrepancies and inaccuracies on your credit report aren’t unheard of. In fact, they’re surprisingly common. A Consumer Report survey found that 34% of consumers identified an error on one of their credit reports. While some inaccuracies are as innocuous as a typo in your name, some might hurt your credit score. These harmful errors may also be a sign of identity theft. 

The process of disputing an inaccuracy on your credit report is simple. When you request a credit report, you should review your personal information for discrepancies, such as a misspelled or wrong name or address. “Make sure nothing is amiss. That can be a red flag or a sign of identity theft,” Poe says. 

Once you get to your account information, Poe says that the payment data is generally very accurate. “I wouldn’t say that you need to go through with a ledger of your actual credit card and compare number to number,” she says. Identity theft should actually be obvious on your credit report. “If you see an account that you didn’t create, that should jump out to you.”

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