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Credit Reports: What They Are, How to Use Them, and Their Impact on Your Finances

Last updated 05/15/2024 by

Alessandra Nicole

Edited by

Fact checked by

A credit report is a vital financial document that provides a detailed summary of your credit history. It serves as a critical tool for lenders, insurers, employers, and landlords to assess your creditworthiness. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into every aspect of credit reports, from their contents to the role they play in your financial life.

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What is a credit report? Understanding your financial profile

A credit report is a comprehensive record of your financial history, compiled by credit bureaus. Lenders, insurers, employers, and more rely on these reports to assess your creditworthiness. In the United States, three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—collect this data. Your credit report details personal information, account history, public records, and credit inquiries. Understanding your credit report is vital, as it impacts your credit score, which, in turn, affects your financial opportunities. Discover the key components of your credit report, how credit scores work, and how to access this essential document.

How credit reports work

In the United States, three major credit reporting bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—collect data on your credit history. While the information they gather is generally similar, small variations can occur due to differences in the data provided by your creditors. It’s crucial to understand that credit reports primarily focus on your use of credit and do not include details about your income, investments, or other assets.

What information is in my credit report?

Your credit report is typically divided into four sections:

Personal information

At the top of the report, you’ll find your personal details, including your name (and any variations you use), address, date of birth, spouse or co-applicant, and phone numbers.


This section constitutes the bulk of most reports and includes detailed information on your past and present credit accounts, both revolving credit, such as credit cards and lines of credit, and installment credit, such as auto loans, personal loans, and mortgages. It will indicate when these accounts were opened, their current status (open or closed), and whether you’ve maintained timely payments.

Public records

The third section includes public records regarding any bankruptcies, legal judgments, or tax liens. It does not include non-financial matters, such as arrests.

Credit inquiries

The bottom part of the report lists entities that have recently requested access to your credit report. These fall into two categories: hard inquiries, which happen when you apply for credit, and soft inquiries, which occur when a potential creditor requests your file for marketing purposes. Hard inquiries can have a negative impact on your credit score, although it is usually brief.

Credit reports and credit scores

Credit scores are three-digit numbers, typically ranging from 300 to 850, that serve as a summary of your creditworthiness. The information in your credit reports is used to compute your credit scores, but the scores themselves are not part of your report and must be obtained separately.
These scores are computed using formulas developed by FICO or a competitor such as VantageScore. They assign different weightings to the information in your credit report, to reflect its importance and predictive value. A typical FICO score breaks down like this:
  • Payment history: 35%. This reflects whether you pay your credit bills on time.
  • Amounts owed: 30%. This looks at factors such as your credit utilization ratio, which measures your debt relative to your available credit.
  • Length of credit history: 15%. Older accounts count for more than newer ones.
  • Credit mix: 10%. The credit scoring models favor individuals who’ve had a variety of credit types (such as a credit card and a car loan or mortgage) and used them all responsibly.
  • New credit: 10%. If you’ve taken on a lot of new credit lately, lenders can see that as a red flag.
While that’s a typical breakdown, some scoring models put greater emphasis on certain factors. For example, there are scoring models specifically for mortgage lenders, car loan lenders, and credit card issuers. As a result, many consumers won’t have just one credit score but several of them.
Here is a list of the benefits and the drawbacks to consider.
  • Access to credit report for free annually
  • Ability to address errors to improve creditworthiness
  • Potential negative impact on credit score due to errors

Frequently asked questions

How often should I review my credit report?

Regularly reviewing your credit report, at least once a year, is advisable to ensure its accuracy and address errors promptly.

Can my credit report be accessed without my permission?

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, entities must have a valid reason to access your credit report. In the case of employers, your written consent is required.

What do I do if I find errors in my credit report?

If you discover errors in your credit report, you have the right to dispute them. Credit bureaus are legally obligated to investigate and rectify any inaccuracies.

Key takeaways

  • Understanding your credit report is essential for managing your financial life.
  • Credit reports do not include information about your income, investments, or assets.
  • Credit scores, derived from your credit report, play a crucial role in your financial opportunities.
  • Most information on your credit report remains for seven years, with exceptions like Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
  • Your credit report is accessible to specific entities under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
  • You can obtain a free annual copy of your credit report and address errors as needed.

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