How to read a credit report

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In a Nutshell

Reviewing your credit reports is an important part of understanding your credit health. Here's what's in a credit report - and why it matters.

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Learning your credit scores shouldn’t be the end of your credit evaluation.

Your credit reports from the three major consumer credit bureaus can help shed light on why you may have been turned down for credit, how negative information may affect your credit, and whether someone tried to fraudulently apply for credit under your name.

TransUnion, Equifax and Experian each issues separate credit reports, which may contain information about your credit activity, payment history and the status of your credit accounts based on reporting from creditors and other sources.

So why are these reports important? Because credit card issuers and lenders pull and review them to help determine things like whether you’re a credit risk, what interest rate they’ll offer you, and the amount of your credit limit. Your credit reports may also be reviewed when you’re renting an apartment or purchasing insurance.

With so much information, where do you even start when it comes to reading your credit reports? Let’s take a look.


What’s in a credit report and why it matters

Credit reports are typically divided into six sections.

1. Personal information

Identity information on your reports may include your:

  • Name
  • Social Security number
  • Birth date
  • Address
  • Phone number

If you find incorrect identity information on one of your credit reports, you can file a dispute or an update with the reporting credit bureau to change it. You can also notify the creditor that reported the information and request that it send an update to the credit bureau.

Learn more: Updating personal information on your credit report

2. Employer history

This may be included in the personal information section. You can file a dispute to change outdated information or add missing employer information, but it usually isn’t necessary. Employer information listed on the reports is typically there to help verify your identity.

3. Consumer statements

This section may contain any brief statements you’ve submitted to a credit bureau. For example, if you disputed an item and the investigation didn’t resolve the dispute, your statement might explain how you disagree with reported information.

4. Account information

This is where you’ll find specific details on your accounts, including:

  • Open accounts
  • Closed accounts
  • The dates accounts were opened or closed
  • Payment history
  • Credit utilization
  • Current account balance
  • Loan payment status

“If you’re paying bills on time and in full each month, this section will reflect that the account was paid as agreed,” says John Danaher, president of Consumer Interactive at TransUnion. “However, in the event a loan goes into collection, this section will reflect the delinquent payment status instead.”

Late payments can stay on your credit reports for up to seven years from the date you missed the payment before they’re removed by the credit bureaus.

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How to read credit report codes

You’ll find a variety of different codes on your credit reports. Each major credit bureau has its own codes though, so don’t assume a code used by one bureau means the same thing on another bureau’s report.

Each bureau offers a guide explaining the codes you’ll see on that particular bureau’s report. Here’s where you can access those guides.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends watching for the following errors:

  • Accounts belonging to another person with the same name
  • Accounts created through identity theft
  • Incorrect payment history
  • Wrong balance or credit limit information
  • Reinsertion of previously corrected data

5. Public records

Public records may include bankruptcies, foreclosures, tax liens and civil judgments against you, all of which can hurt your credit.

6. Inquiries

Hard inquiries can negatively affect your credit scores. But that’s not the only reason to watch this section closely.

Hard inquiries generally occur when a financial institution checks your credit after someone has applied for credit in your name. This means that an unauthorized hard inquiry on your credit reports can be a problem, according to credit expert John Ulzheimer, president of The Ulzheimer Group. Unauthorized hard inquiries that you don’t recognize could be an indication of identity theft.

5 things to do if you spot an unauthorized credit inquiry

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How can I get a copy of my credit report from all three major credit bureaus?

You can order one free copy annually of your credit report from TransUnion, Equifax and Experian by requesting it online with each bureau. Or get your hands on all three reports at once by ordering them at AnnualCreditReport.com. You’re also entitled to a free copy of your credit report from a credit bureau that provided a report to a creditor that declined your credit application.

Reports from AnnualCreditReport.com don’t include your credit scores, but if you sign up for a Credit Karma account, you can see your VantageScore 3.0 credit scores and reports from TransUnion and Equifax, as well as have the ability to monitor your credit scores and credit activity as often as you like.


Bottom line

Knowing how to read your credit reports can help you learn how you can improve your credit. It’s also important to monitor your credit reports regularly to keep an eye out for possible identity theft and fraud.