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Here are your options for getting a free credit score

By , CardRatings contributor
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Score a free credit scoreEveryone, from bankers to friends and relatives, has probably told you to find out your credit score before you take out a loan, whether you're applying for a credit card or buying car or a house. And as you've probably noticed, that can be harder than it would seem. It isn't like credit scores grow in the wild for anyone to take.

And, for years, it was pretty challenging to get your credit score. Often the best advice was to go to a credit monitoring and credit score service and pay a monthly fee but cancel your subscription before the first payment came due within 30 days. Basically, it was a lot of crazy hoops consumers had to jump through.

But in recent years, it has been getting easier to get a free credit score, and you definitely have options for getting one, strategies that go from very good to… meh.

But before we go through your choices, for anyone new to getting a credit card, we'll quickly review what a credit score is, and then get one big misconception out of the way, and then away we go…

What is a credit score?

A credit score is a number that quickly tells a lender whether you're a good credit risk or a shaky one. There are a lot of different credit scores out there, but the most popular and well known is a FICO credit score, which has a range between 300 and 850. If you have a credit score in the 300s, it's going to be very difficult to get any sort of loan. If your credit score is 700 or over, and especially the higher you go, you'll basically have lenders falling all over themselves to lend you money.

The big misconception. You've probably heard that you can get your credit report for free if you go to AnnualCreditReport.com, and that's true. You can get one free credit report a year each year from each of the three credit reporting agencies, and most personal finance experts will suggest staggering it so that you're always getting a credit report every four months from one of the three credit bureaus.

With that report you can make sure there aren't mistakes related to your financial activity since errors on your credit report can lower your credit score. And no, you'll never pay a dime for that once-a-year report. So you may be thinking, "Well, heck, that's what I'm going to do."

That's all well and good, but your credit report doesn't tell you your credit score. It lists the major moments of your financial history, generally for the last 10 years, and lenders scrutinize it to determine if they should loan you money. But, again, there's no credit score on the credit report, and many consumers seem to forget this.

So if you want a free FICO score or any free credit score for that matter, consider trying the following strategies.

What are the options for getting a free credit score?

Check with your credit card. Many credit card issuers in the last few years have begun offering their cardholders free credit scores every month, and many of those scores are free FICO credit scores. For years, that wasn't the case. It could be really challenging to get a free credit score. But clearly the industry has realized that leaving consumers in the dark for decades and thus encouraging credit card cluelessness isn't good for anyone.

Unfortunately, not all credit cards offer their members free credit scores, but quite a few are, and it's as easy as going to the credit card's website. In fact, in a couple cases, you don't even have to have a credit card to get a free credit score. Some of the big players offering free credit scores include:

  • American Express. If you have any American Express credit card, you can get a free FICO credit score on its website.
  • Ditto for Bank of America cardholders.
  • Barclaycard U.S. will also give its credit card members their free FICO credit score. .
  • Capital One will give anyone a free credit score (that's right; just like they say in their TV commercials, you don't have to be a cardholder). In this case, you aren't getting a FICO score but a free Vantage Score 3.0. That may sound like some chintzy credit score nobody's going to want, like some second-rate credit score, but while it isn't as well known as FICO, it's the second most popular credit score among lenders, and it's often used in lending decisions. So, yes, it's a good credit score to get.
  • If you have a Chase Slate® credit card, a card that many people use to manage debt (it has a really good balance transfer deal), you can get a free FICO score every month.
  • Some Citi credit cards offer free FICO credit scores.
  • Discover credit card will give out a free FICO credit score to anyone. You need to go to CreditScorecard.com. It's free. It won't hurt your credit, and the website insists they won't sell your information either. You'll need to create an account and give out some personal intel, like your Social Security number. And you can get it every 30 days (it's updated every 30 days, so checking for it more frequently would be kind of pointless).
  • And some Wells Fargo credit cardholders can get a free FICO credit score.

Your other options. These alternatives aren't as practical, but in case you don't have a credit card that will give you a free credit score, and if you don't feel like going to Discover or Capital One (maybe you're shy?), you could do the following:

Pay for a credit score. If money isn't an issue, and you don't want the "hassle" of getting a free credit score from a credit card, you could go to MyFico.com and buy a score directly from them. The FICO score is the most popular score that lenders use to determine a borrower's credit risk. It was created by the Fair Isaac Corporation. If you're interested in getting it from them, just go to the website, and you can pay $19.95 for your credit score. (Because there are three different credit bureaus, if you want all three credit scores, you're paying approximately $60. You can also get a bunch of scores, far more than three, and credit monitoring for $29.95 a month from MyFico.com.)

And there are other websites out there, some of which will charge you for a credit score and some that won't. Whatever you do, just make sure that you aren't roped into paying for some other service that perhaps you don't want.

Find a reputable nonprofit credit counseling service. Often credit counselors will give you a free credit report and score. You could do that, and arguably should do that if your credit score is in tatters, and you could use help getting out of debt.

So you do have quite a few options for getting a credit score, but at the same time, if looking for it overwhelms you, don't stress over looking for it too much. It's the other stuff - paying your bills on time, making sure you aren't carrying too much debt where you're maxing out your cards (borrowing 30 percent or lower of your available credit is actually the sweet spot, what makes lenders feel you're a good credit risk) and not having wildly negative and incorrect information on your credit reports - that you really should fret over, if you feel like fretting.

In other words, if you don't currently know what your credit score is, you have only yourself to blame. And remember this: knowledge is power. Just because you don't think you'll like what you see doesn't mean you shouldn't check it. Knowing where you stand is the first step toward building the credit score and history that you want.

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