Understanding the 3 major credit bureaus

Equifax, Experian and TransUnion create the credit reports that inform your credit scores.

If you’ve ever applied for credit, you probably know a little bit about credit reports already. But did you know that there are several different versions of your credit report?  

Credit reports are compiled by three major companies called credit bureaus, also known as credit reporting agencies or consumer reporting companies. Read on to learn what credit bureaus are, what 
information they collect and how your credit reports impact your credit scores.

Key takeaways

  • The three major credit bureaus are Equifax®, Experian® and TransUnion®.
  • Credit bureaus are different from credit scoring companies, such as VantageScore® and FICO®.
  • The information credit bureaus collect includes things like payment history and public records.
  • Information in each bureau’s credit reports might come from different sources, which can result in a subtle difference in credit scores.

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What are the 3 credit bureaus?

Equifax, Experian and TransUnion are the three major credit bureaus in the U.S. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), credit bureaus are companies that compile and sell credit reports

If you own a credit card or have received a loan in the past, you have already started building your credit history if that information has been reported to one or more of the three credit bureaus.

What about specialty credit reporting?

Besides the three main credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, there are also specialty reporting agencies that collect much more specific information about you. As the CFPB explains, these agencies might collect data and create reports based on information like apartment rental payments, insurance claims, medical payments and more.

If you’ve never heard of these specialty reports, you’re not alone. The CFPB says you might not even know about them unless you find yourself having problems with things like getting a job or renting an apartment.

What data is collected by the major credit bureaus?

The three credit bureaus typically collect information about your financial habits. 

The exact information each credit bureau collects might vary. But according to the CFPB, the information typically includes things like:

  • Hard inquiries related to credit applications
  • The date an account is opened
  • The loan amount or the credit limit
  • The account balance
  • Your payment history, including late or missing payments
  • Whether the account is in collection
  • Public records

Credit bureaus compile this information into credit reports that lenders use to help predict how likely you are to repay debts on time. Lenders might use credit reports, along with other information, to help decide things like whether to approve you for credit, what interest rate to offer you and how to set your credit limit

Other businesses might check your credit too. Insurance companies might use credit reports to decide on applications or set insurance rates. Or landlords might use them to decide whether to lease someone an apartment.

Your credit scores are calculated based on information in your credit reports. This is why it’s important to know about your credit reports and how they’re created.

How do credit bureaus get your information?

The three credit bureaus gather information from a combination of different sources. But generally, there are a few main ways credit bureaus collect information about you. 

First, some financial institutions and lenders voluntarily send information to the credit bureaus. According to the CFPB, that includes places like:

  • Banks and credit unions
  • Credit card issuers, including store credit cards 
  • Auto lenders 
  • Mortgage lenders 
  • Debt collection agencies 

Credit bureaus also obtain public records and include that information in their reports. Those records might include things like: 

  • Property records, such as liens
  • Bankruptcy filings
  • Court records 
  • Wage garnishments

What keeps my credit reports private?

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is a federal law that helps protect the accuracy, privacy and fairness of information collected by credit bureaus.

When credit bureaus collect information on consumer credit behavior, they have the right to do so without people’s permission. But businesses that might want to access information through a credit check, including credit card issuers, need to have “a permissible purpose” under the law to obtain your credit report. In most cases, the business will disclose to you that they are pulling your credit report.

Why do you have different credit scores?

It’s important to note that information in each credit bureau’s report might be collected from different sources. This is why you may find that one credit bureau’s report has certain information that the others don’t, and that can result in a subtle difference in your credit scores.

Separate from the three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, are credit scoring companies, such as VantageScore and FICO. They use mathematical formulas called scoring models along with information from your credit reports to calculate credit scores. 

What’s a credit scoring model?

Credit scoring models are mathematical systems used by credit bureaus to determine your creditworthiness. Credit scoring companies, such as FICO and VantageScore, use their own credit scoring models to calculate credit scores. 

A model might use information from just one or a combination of different credit reports. Then, each credit scoring model might assign different levels of importance to that information. Credit scores generally range from 300 to 850, and your score may depend on information like your payment history, total outstanding debt and credit mix. 

Typically, higher credit scores allow you to access credit cards or loans with better terms. According to the CFPB, your score can even change depending on the day it’s calculated or the type of credit you’re applying for. That’s because there are many different credit scoring models for different types of loans that might rely on different sources of information.   

Some lenders might even have their own custom credit scoring models that they use to make credit decisions.

It’s understandable if this all feels a little complicated. But remember: Your credit scores can be different depending on the information used, the company, the type of loan and the time when your score is calculated.

How to check your credit reports

Now that you know more about the three credit bureaus, you might be wondering: How do I check my credit reports? 

You can get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to learn how. There may be a limit on how often you can get your report. You can check the site or call 877-322-8228 for more details.

Another way to monitor your credit is by using CreditWise from Capital One. With CreditWise, you can access your TransUnion credit report and weekly VantageScore 3.0 credit score—without hurting your score. And CreditWise is free for everyone. You don’t even have to be a Capital One cardholder to enroll.

Checking your credit reports and your credit scores regularly can help you:

  • See where you stand before making major financial decisions.
  • Catch identity theft if you find inaccurate information.
  • Keep track of your financial habits.
  • Monitor your progress as you work to improve your credit scores.
  • Understand how negative information affects your credit scores.

More FAQs about the 3 credit bureaus

Which of the 3 credit bureaus is most important?

There’s no “most important” credit bureau. Reviewing reports from all three bureaus can help you understand what information might be used to calculate your credit scores. But remember, lenders have their own criteria to decide on things like loan and credit applications.

Which of the 3 credit bureaus is most accurate?

All three credit bureaus generally provide accurate credit reports, and no credit bureau is “better” than another. However, credit reporting errors do occur. So, it never hurts to check your credit report for errors.

How do I contact all 3 credit bureaus?

To contact all three major credit bureaus, you can visit their websites linked below or call the specified customer service numbers listed below:

What is a good FICO score?

FICO says good credit scores may range from 670 to 739 and fair credit scores range from 580 to 669.

What is the highest credit score?

For typical score ranges, the highest credit score possible from FICO and VantageScore is 850. But remember there are multiple scoring models and ranges. For example, FICO Auto Scores go as high as 900.

The bottom line on bureaus

Now you know a little more about the three major credit bureaus and why they matter when it comes to your credit reports and credit scores. 

Understanding more about how credit works and why credit is so important can help you get the tools you need to work on maintaining good credit

If you’re at the beginning of your credit journey, you can learn more about how to establish first-time credit or build credit from scratch.

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