What is a starting credit score?

When you check your credit scores for the first time, you might be surprised to find a three-digit number, even if you’ve never used credit before. That’s because your credit score doesn’t start at zero. In fact, the lowest possible score from FICO® and VantageScore® is 300.

But unless you’ve had some recent trouble with on-time payments or high spending, your score likely won’t be that low. Read on to learn more about where your score starts and why using credit responsibly is important from day one.

Key takeaways

  • There isn’t a set credit score that each person starts out with. Instead, if you don’t have any credit history, you likely don’t have a score at all.
  • Credit scores are calculated by taking into account a few factors like payment history, current debt, credit utilization, credit mix, credit age and new credit applications.
  • Once credit is established, credit scores typically range from 300 to 850.

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What credit score do you start with?

Since everyone’s credit journey is different, there’s no one standard score everyone starts out with. And you can have different credit scores depending on the credit-scoring model—either FICO or VantageScore.

You won’t start with a score of zero, though. You simply won’t have a score at all. That’s because your credit scores aren’t calculated until a lender or another entity requests them to determine your creditworthiness

The key, and more important question, is how to establish credit and use your credit responsibly to help build the best score possible.

How is your starting credit score calculated?

There are some factors that have a direct impact on your credit scores. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, here are a few that can influence your scores:

  • Payment history: How well you’ve done making payments on time. 
  • Debt: How much current unpaid debt you have across all your accounts.
  • Credit utilization: A ratio that reflects how much of your available credit you’re using compared with how much you have available. Credit utilization is usually expressed as a percentage.
  • Credit mix: How many and what kinds of loans you have, such as revolving credit accounts and installment loans
  • Credit age: How long your accounts have been open. But remember, what qualifies as your oldest line of credit depends on what’s shown in your credit reports.
  • New credit applications: How many times you’ve applied recently for new credit. The effect of a single application on your scores might be minor, but a lot of new applications, each of which triggers a hard credit inquiry, could still give a negative impression to lenders.

How exactly these factors affect your scores depends on the credit-scoring model—a mathematical formula used by a credit bureau—and the company doing the scoring. A model might use information from a combination of different credit reports or from just one report. Then each credit-scoring model might assign different levels of importance to that information.

Credit score ranges

FICO and VantageScore are the two credit-scoring companies that provide some of the most commonly used credit scores. Scores from both companies range from 300 to 850.

Here’s how FICO categorizes its scores:

FICO credit score range.

And here’s how VantageScore categorizes its scores:

VantageScore credit score range.

At what age does your credit score start?

Most people won’t have credit reports or scores before turning 18. You typically have to be at least that age to open a credit card in your own name. If you’ve never used any form of credit before, there’s no way to track your credit usage. And in many cases, that means credit reports and scores may not exist.

But when you’re eligible to start borrowing on your own, you’ll see credit scores and reports as more lines of credit or loans are opened in your name. In some cases, you’ll also see scores and reports in your name if you’re added as an authorized user to someone’s account.

How to establish and maintain good credit

Building credit is a process. But that doesn’t mean you’re totally out of luck if you’re just starting to establish credit and considered credit invisible. Here are just a few ways to build credit for the first time:

  • Apply for a credit card. If you don’t have a credit history, you might want to consider applying for a secured credit card. Secured means you give a security deposit to the credit card issuer in order to open an account. And building your credit through the responsible use of a secured card can make you a better candidate for things like mortgages, car loans and even other credit cards.
  • Become an authorized user. If someone like a friend or a family member has good credit, being added to their account as an authorized user could help you start a credit history. Becoming an authorized user allows you to make purchases. But the primary account holder is ultimately responsible for payments. Keep in mind that while positive activity and responsible use on the account can benefit your score, negative actions can affect your credit, too.
  • Take out a credit-builder loan. Credit unions may offer credit-builder loans that allow you to build your credit history. The lender deposits the loan amount in a locked savings account, and you make small payments over a fixed period to pay it back. Payments are reported to credit agencies to help you establish credit. And once the loan is paid off, you get access to the money in the savings account.

Is it possible to have a credit score without a credit card?

In short, yes. But to establish a credit score, you’ll still need to have a line of credit or loan associated with your name. There are different types of credit: revolving, installment and open.

A credit card is an example of a revolving credit account. But you can build credit with any other type of account that reports activity to the credit bureaus. Here are a few examples of other types of credit accounts that can become part of your credit history:

How to monitor your credit score

You can get free copies of your credit reports from all three major credit bureausEquifax®, Experian® and TransUnion®. Call 877-322-8228 or visit AnnualCreditReport.com to learn more. Keep in mind that there may be a limit on how often you can get your reports. You can check the site for more details.

Consider monitoring your credit to see how your most recently reported balance impacts your scores. CreditWise from Capital One is a free tool that lets you monitor your VantageScore 3.0 credit score. Using CreditWise to monitor your credit won’t hurt your score. And it’s free for everyone—not just Capital One account holders.

Starting credit scores in a nutshell

Even if you haven’t had any type of credit before, your scores don’t start at zero.

As you start your credit journey, remember there are ways to start positive financial habits right away to help you continue building better scores. Once you start building credit, you can use Capital One’s guide to learn how to improve your credit scores. And if you’re considering applying for a credit card, check out these fair credit and building credit options.

Dori Zinn, contributing writer

Dori is a personal finance journalist with more than a decade of experience covering credit and debt, college affordability, banking, budgeting, investing, retirement and more. Her work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo and Forbes. She loves helping people learn about money.

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