Why are my credit scores different?

Woman wonders why credit scores differ between different agenciesImage: Woman wonders why credit scores differ between different agencies

In a Nutshell

Wondering why your credit scores are different? It can be confusing with so many scores out there. When you apply for a credit card or loan, the lender could be using one of dozens of credit-scoring models from score providers such as FICO® or one of the three major bureaus.
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There are few numbers that matter as much to your financial well-being as your credit scores.

Whether you’re applying for a credit card or buying a home, these three-digit numbers can go a long way in determining whether a lender will do business with you.

But there are so many credit-scoring models out there, including FICO and VantageScore. How can you keep track of them all?

And what should you do if your scores differ among credit-reporting agencies (also known as credit bureaus)?

First things first: It’s perfectly normal for scores to differ slightly among agencies. It’s up to lenders to decide which information they report to the major credit agencies — and which agencies they report to in the first place.

The good news? Many agencies look at similar factors when calculating your credit scores. So long as you make payments on timekeep your credit utilization low and don’t open too many new credit card accounts, you should be in good position when it comes to your credit scores. Here at Credit Karma, we want to help you develop the healthy financial habits that credit-reporting agencies in the U.S. look for when they crunch your credit scores.

Why are my credit scores different?

There are a few reasons why you might get different credit scores from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies (Equifax®, Experian® and TransUnion®). Here are some of the most common situations.

  1. Scores are calculated using different scoring models. Keep in mind, there are dozens of credit-scoring models out there that may calculate your score a little differently.
  2. Scores are calculated using different credit reports. Some lenders report to all three major credit agencies, but others report to only one or two. This means a credit agency may be missing information that helps or hurts your score.
  3. Scores are from different dates. Since your scores might change at any time, it’s important to compare credit scores from the same date.

We recommend you periodically check your credit reports for errors, which could affect your scores. You can check your Equifax and TransUnion credit reports for free on Credit Karma, and your Experian report on AnnualCreditReport.com.

What is a FICO® score?

In the old days, banks and other lenders developed their own “score cards” to assess the risk of lending to a particular person. But the scores could vary drastically from one lender to the next, based on an individual loan officer’s ability to judge risk.

To solve this issue, the Fair Isaac Corporation (formerly Fair, Isaac, and Company) introduced the first general-purpose credit score in 1989. Known as the FICO Score, it filters through information in your credit reports to calculate your score.

Since then, the company has expanded to offer multiple unique scores that are optimized for various credit card, mortgage and auto lending decisions.

Why do my FICO credit scores differ?

Credit scores, even ones from the same company, are like thumbprints: No two scoring models are the same.

Like we mentioned before, FICO periodically updates its credit-scoring models so there are multiple FICO score versions. Each of these models has a unique formula that caters to, say, credit card issuers, mortgage lenders or car salesmen, each placing importance on different factors.

If you’ve had a car repossessed or missed a payment on an auto loan, for example, your FICO Auto Score may put extra weight on those factors. Note that your base FICO Score will likely also account for a missed car payment, but it may be weighted differently.

Though your scores may vary, they’re all based on the information provided by the credit-reporting agencies. So focusing on what’s in your credit reports could help you build your credit across the board.

How is FICO different from VantageScore?

FICO scores are just the tip of the iceberg. You may have dozens of other credit scores you’re not aware of.

The other main scoring model you’ll run into is VantageScore. The three major credit bureaus teamed up in 2006 to create the independently managed firm VantageScore Solutions, which just released the fourth and latest version of its credit-scoring model, the VantageScore 4.0. The previous version, VantageScore 3.0, is still widely used and is the score that you can view for free via Credit Karma.

We know this is a lot to take in, but don’t panic. While each of these credit-reporting agencies calculates your credit scores differently, they all focus on how you handle the money you borrow.

Credit score ranges

Think of your credit scores as a report card that gauges what lenders might refer to as your “creditworthiness.” The most common scores range from 300 points to 850 points. In general, the higher your score, the better your chances of getting approved for credit cards or loans with more favorable terms, including lower interest rates and fees.

Credit score range VantageScore 3.0 FICO
Excellent 781–850 800–850
Very good N/A 740–799
Good 661–780 670–739
Fair 601–660 580–669
Poor 500–600 < 580
Very poor < 500

What’s the best credit-scoring model to use?

There’s really no such thing as a “best” or “worst” credit-scoring model — they’re just different, and different lenders may use different credit scores. No matter what score a lender uses, keeping your payments on-time, limiting opening new lines of credit, and trying to minimize debt when possible can help keep your credit in a good place. That said, knowing your other credit scores can help in getting an overall picture of your credit health.

Next steps

It can be difficult to keep track of all your credit scores with so many different scoring models out there — not to mention how each score changes over time.

These complicated facets of credit scores are exactly why we developed Credit Karma. We hope to provide you with an easy-to-follow point of reference on your credit health.

Best of all, it’s always free to check your VantageScore 3.0 credit scores and credit reports from two major credit-reporting agencies with us. What’s more, you can check your credit reports on Credit Karma as much as you’d like without resulting in a hard inquiry that could potentially damage your scores.

About the author: Tim Devaney is a personal finance writer and credit card expert at Credit Karma. He’s a longtime journalist who prides himself on being a good storyteller who can explain complex information in an easily digestible wa… Read more.