Hard vs. soft credit checks: What to expect

Ever wonder if checking your own credit scores will lower them? The short answer is no—checking your credit scores yourself won’t hurt them. However, other types of credit checks could cause your scores to drop—though the drop could just be temporary and only by a few points.

Read on to learn more about the two kinds of credit checks—soft credit checks versus hard credit checks—and what impact they may have on your scores.

Key takeaways

  • Soft credit checks don’t impact your credit scores.
  • Soft credit checks are also known as soft pulls and soft inquiries.
  • Hard credit checks may have a temporary negative effect on credit scores.
  • Hard credit checks are also known as hard pulls and hard inquiries.

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What is a soft credit check?

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a soft credit check—also known as a soft inquiry or soft credit pull—is a review of your credit file and existing accounts.

This type of credit check commonly occurs when you authorize an individual or organization to review your credit report for things like a background check or pre-approval offer. They might also occur when you check your credit. 

Soft inquiries are only visible to you on credit reports and don’t impact your credit scores.

What is a hard inquiry?

Also known as a hard credit check, a hard inquiry happens when a lender checks your credit report after you apply for credit. “When you apply for credit, you authorize those lenders to ask or ‘inquire’ for a copy of your credit report from a credit bureau,” credit-scoring company FICO® explains.

This type of credit inquiry does have an impact on your credit scores. According to FICO, a hard inquiry can lower your credit scores—usually by just a few points. The CFPB explains why: Credit-scoring models generally look at how recently—and how often—you’ve applied for credit.

Requesting a credit limit increase may also trigger a hard inquiry, but that can depend on the lender’s policies, how they access your credit and your specific circumstances.

How many hard inquiries are too many?

When lenders are evaluating your credit risk, one of the factors that they’ll look at is the number of hard inquiries on your credit report. If you apply for many credit products in a short period of time, lenders may view this as an indication that you may be a greater risk than other borrowers. 

While one or two inquiries may not cause a red flag, having several on your credit report could have a negative impact on your ability to qualify for financing or result in higher rates for approved financing.

How long do hard credit checks stay on your credit report?

Hard inquiries may stay on your credit reports for up to two years. However, hard inquiries that are more than a year old might not affect your scores. If you continue to make on-time payments and keep your credit utilization rate low, you should be able to bring your credit back up fairly quickly.

As Equifax®, one of the three major credit bureaus, explains, “Hard inquiries serve as a timeline of when you have applied for new credit and may stay on your credit report for two years, although they typically only affect your credit scores for one year.”

FICO confirms that this is how their credit scores work: “Although FICO Scores only consider inquiries from the last 12 months, inquiries remain on your credit report for two years.”

Examples of soft vs. hard inquiries

Take a look at a few examples of both soft and hard inquiries.

Soft inquiries

Hard inquiries

Ways to help manage hard credit inquiries

When you know what can trigger hard inquiries, you may be able to better manage their impact.

Here are some other tips to help you manage hard inquiries on your credit:

  • Get pre-approved or pre-qualified. Before you apply for credit, getting a pre-approval or pre-qualification can help you compare options and find the right fit. With the pre-approval tool from Capital One, for example, you can find out whether you’re pre-approved for some of Capital One’s credit cards before you even apply. It’s quick and only requires some basic info. And it won’t hurt your credit scores since it only requires a soft inquiry.
  • Apply only for the credit you need. As the CFPB explains, “Credit scoring formulas look at your recent credit activity as a signal of your need for credit. If you apply for a lot of credit over a short period of time, it may appear to lenders that your economic circumstances have changed negatively.” 
  • Keep your mortgage or car loan shopping short. When you apply for some types of credit, each application results in a hard inquiry. But that may not always be true for mortgages and auto loans. Shopping for auto or home financing over a short amount of time—14 to 45 days, according to the CFPB—could be counted as a single inquiry.
  • Monitor your credit. Regularly checking your credit reports can help you stay on top of factors that impact your credit—including hard inquiries. You can get free copies of your credit reports once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus—Equifax®, Experian® and TransUnion®—by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com.

The Capital One CreditWise tool is another easy way to monitor your credit. With CreditWise, you can stay on top of your VantageScore® 3.0 credit score and TransUnion credit report for free—even if you’re not a Capital One customer. With the CreditWise Simulator, you can even explore the potential impact of your financial decisions before you make them.

Hard vs. soft credit checks in a nutshell

Remember: Checking your own credit scores and reports is an example of a soft inquiry. And soft inquiries don’t impact your credit scores.

Hard inquiries, on the other hand, happen when a lender checks your credit report after you apply for credit. And since hard inquiries do affect your scores, you’ll want to try to limit how many “hard” hits your credit takes—and continue to monitor your credit over time to see what impact they may be causing.

You can also sign up for CreditWise to help you stay on top of your credit.

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