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A credit report shows your credit history and the status of the accounts you have open. A credit score boils all of the information down into a three-digit score. The higher your score, the more likely that you'd pay back a loan.

Before you try borrowing money, applying for a job or renting an apartment, you'll want to get your hands on your credit reports and scores to see what the decision-makers will see. Here's how to do that — for free.

Easiest way to get free credit reports

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You are entitled to three free credit reports every year -- one from each of the three major credit reporting agencies.

Yes, we did say credit reports and credit scores. You have three credit reports: one from each of the major credit reporting agencies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. You also have multiple credit scores.

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, consumers are entitled to free copies of each of their credit reports every 12 months. To request your reports, just go to AnnualCreditReport.com.

The reports can be transmitted electronically in an instant, or you can have hard copies delivered to you within 15 days of your request.

Other times you can get a free credit report

Under the law, you also can get a credit report for free in the following instances:

  • When an adverse decision is made against you because of information in your credit report. Examples include being turned down for a credit card or being rejected for an apartment lease.
  • If you are the victim of identity theft and have asked that a fraud alert be placed on your credit files.
  • If your files contain inaccurate information due to fraud.
  • If you're on public assistance.
  • If you're unemployed but expect to apply for work within 60 days.

Getting a free credit score is trickier

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You can actually see your credit reports for free, but credit scores are a different story.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act does not provide for a free credit score. When you request a free credit report through AnnualCreditReport.com, you will be offered an accompanying score for a fee, currently $8.

But you have other options for obtaining your credit score, and some of them are free. For example, most major credit cards give cardholders free access to credit scores:

  • American Express: Free monthly FICO score, the most common type of credit score.
  • Barclays: Free FICO scores plus credit monitoring.
  • Capital One: Free VantageScore® 3.0 credit score through its CreditWise® monitoring tool.
  • Discover: Provides a FICO score with each monthly statement.

Free credit scores are also available through Experian Boost™. Not only are you able to check your FICO score for free, but you can Boost it instantly too. (Results may vary, see website for details.)

Why you should pay for credit monitoring

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Most people would benefit from credit monitoring services.

While there is plenty to love about getting a free credit report and score, most people would actually benefit far more from paying for a credit monitoring service.

These services include continuous credit monitoring and credit alerts when there is suspicious activity on your credit account. This means that if fraud or errors happen, you can catch it early and take steps to protect yourself before the issue becomes costly.

They also provide monthly credit reports and credit scores from all three major agencies, advice for helping you improve your credit score, and resources to help you dispute errors on your credit report. Basically, the more you pay attention to your credit, the easier it is to improve your score.

Knowing your credit score and the contents of your credit reports is important in understanding your financial options.

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