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What is a credit report?

Key takeaways

  • A credit report details aspects of your financial history related to credit, such as how much debt you have and whether you pay your bills on time.
  • Potential lenders, landlords, and employers could check your credit report before deciding whether to do business with you.
  • If you see a mistake on your credit report, contact the 3 credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—to have it fixed.

When you apply for a new loan or credit card, the lender might check out your credit report before deciding whether to approve your application—and under what terms. A credit report is a useful tool that helps them evaluate whether it's a good idea, or, conversely, too risky, to extend credit to you. Because credit reports can be a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to reaching your financial goals, it's important to understand what they contain and how to dispute any errors you might find.

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What is a credit report?

A credit report is a summary of your credit history and loan repayment activity. Potential lenders and even landlords and employers (often in fields at higher risk for fraud, such as finance and government) can request your permission to review your credit report to see how many loans or credit accounts you already have, outstanding debt across those accounts, and your repayment habits, among other details.

In the US, there are 3 companies—aka credit bureaus—that compile and keep track of what goes into your credit report: Equifax®, Experian®, and TransUnion®. Certain lenders might not report details of your activity with them to every credit bureau, so the information on each of your 3 credit reports might vary.

Why is your credit report important?

Taking out a mortgage, car loan, credit card, or any other debt all typically require a credit-report check. In addition to helping a lender decide if they will approve or deny a loan, your credit report could also impact certain borrowing terms, such as your interest rate, monthly payment amounts, or credit card limit.

Because your credit report could also affect whether you land a new apartment or job, it's important to know what's on there. That way, you'll be in a better position to explain any negative information. It could also empower you to find ways to improve your credit. Regularly reviewing your credit report could also help you catch and hopefully mitigate the impact of identity theft—for example, if someone opened a loan or credit card under your name.

How to get a free credit report

By law, you're entitled to receive a free copy of your credit report from each of the 3 major credit bureaus once every 12 months. You can request these reports through the website To get your free credit report, all you need to do is answer a few questions to prove your identity.

What's included in a credit report?

While each credit bureau uses their own design, they generally include a few main sections on their credit reports. Understanding what they contain can help you read your credit report.

Personal information: This section includes your name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, and phone number. It could also include past addresses used for loan/credit applications.

Employment history: When you apply for credit, the lender might verify your employment status and income. Then they might pass this information along to the credit bureaus (though they don't always). How complete the list of present and past employers is on your credit report depends on the lender's reporting practices and whether you applied for credit while employed by a given employer. Employment could be its own section or combined under your personal information.

Credit history: In this section, you could see your existing and closed accounts, the names of past and current lenders or creditors, your payment history, your credit card limits, and any outstanding balances on loans and credit cards. Read through this section carefully and make sure that you recognize all the loans and credit cards. You should also make sure everything is accurate. For example, look out for reports of late payments if you've always paid your bills on time.

Public records: This section lists any financial issues that came up from court processes, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, and civil judgments or lawsuits against you. Liens against your property used to be included in this section but are no longer allowed. If you see a lien in the report, you can request to have it removed by the rating agency.

Inquiries: Your credit report also shows the number of hard inquiries lenders have recently made. (More on these below.) If there's an inquiry you don't recognize, it could mean someone fraudulently tried to open a loan or credit card using your name.

How what's on your credit report impacts your credit score

Your FICO credit score is a 3-digit number ranging from 300 to 850, with 850 being the best possible score. This score is a reflection of the information in your credit report, particularly how much debt you have and whether you've paid it down on time. Generally, the better your track record in these areas, the better your credit score will be.

Someone who carries little credit card debt compared to their available credit (or credit limit) and who always makes their payments on time would likely have a high score. On the other hand, someone with multiple maxed-out credit cards or who regularly misses payments will have a lower credit score.

Credit scores are not part of a standard credit report. However, there are a number of ways to access your credit score for free, such as by signing up for an account with a free credit scoring site or one of the credit bureaus, or, in some cases, by looking at your loan statement. Some banks' apps allow customers to see their credit scores too.

How is information added to your credit report?

Lenders, credit card companies, and other financial institutions report information about your loans and payment history to the 3 credit bureaus. The bureaus then add this information to your credit report. Remember, it's possible to see slight differences across your 3 credit reports based on what a certain lender reports to each bureau.

You can't add information directly to the credit report yourself, though. It must come from your lenders and other companies. But if there's information missing from your credit report that you'd like added, you can request that your lender contact the credit agencies to submit that data.

Over time, the rating agencies update your credit report and remove old information. This means that negative credit behavior found on your credit report likely won't hurt you forever.

How long do late payments stay on your credit report?

Late payments can stay on your credit report for up to 7 years. This is true even if you've caught up on your late payments and are current on your accounts—so make every effort to pay on time. Consider signing up for autopay on your accounts, for example, or setting calendar reminders to avoid forgetting to make a payment.

How long do hard inquiries stay on your credit report?

A hard credit inquiry is when a lender or credit card company pulls your credit report because they are considering approving you for a loan. Lenders want a record of your hard inquiries so they can see if you're applying for multiple loans at the same time—a perceived sign you might be experiencing financial hardship or some other cash-flow problem. Hard inquiries stay on your report for up to 2 years, and a lender needs your permission before conducting one.

If someone pulls your report for a background check or something else unrelated to creating a new credit application, it's known as a soft inquiry. These do not appear on your credit report.

How long does a bankruptcy stay on your credit report?

The amount of time that a bankruptcy stays on your credit report depends on what type of bankruptcy you declare.

In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, your debts are reorganized under a court-ordered repayment plan. This plan will typically require you to make reduced payments to your creditors over a 3- to 5-year period. After that period, any remaining qualifying debts will be discharged. Chapter 13 bankruptcy stays on your credit report for up to 7 years.

With Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you're required to liquidate non-exempt assets (selling property, for example) and to use the proceeds of that liquidation to pay back your creditors. If any qualified debt remains after this liquidation, it will be discharged by the court. Chapter 7 bankruptcy stays on your credit report for up to 10 years.

How long do collections stay on your credit report?

If you fall behind on a bill or debt and don't catch up, your creditor could sell the debt to a collections agency, which will try to get the money from you. Debt in collections that's reported to the credit bureaus can stay on your credit report for up to 7 years from the first missed payment that sent the account into collections.

A notable exception is medical debt: Paid medical collections will not appear on your credit report at all. And only unpaid medical collections with initial balances of $500 or more will show up on your credit report.

How to dispute your credit report and fix errors

A Consumer Reports study found more than one-third of participants had credit reports with some type of error.1 If you see a mistake on your report, you should file a dispute letter with the credit bureau. You can do so through their website, by mail, or over the phone.

You'll need to show them the mistake on your report and explain why it's wrong. You should also be ready to provide any proof you have to show why the information is inaccurate. For example, if your report still shows a loan that you paid off, you might send documents you received from your lender saying that you've completed paying off the debt. Likewise, if a report indicates you've missed payments, you might send them statements showing payments for the dates in question.

By tracking your credit report and keeping it up to date, you can put your best foot forward with anyone who checks it in the future.

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1. Lisa L. Gill, "More Than a Third of Volunteers in a Consumer Reports Study Found Errors in Their Credit Reports," Consumer Reports, June 10, 2021.

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