Here's How To Read Your Credit Report (Screenshots Included)
Reading through all the different information and line items on your credit report may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be.
At the end of the day, if you're trying to repair your credit, it's imperative you know how to read through your credit reports and actually understand what's on them. This way, when it comes time to disputing errors on your report, you're armed with the necessary knowledge to get those items removed.
Your credit reports may contain the following data elements:
We'll go over each one of these below and what to look for.
The first thing you should see on any credit report is your personal identifying information.
You know, things like your name, addresses you’ve lived at, phone numbers, birth date, and your social security number.
For example, here's what my personal information section looks like on my TransUnion credit report:
While it's easy to overlook this part of your credit report, you definitely want to check the information carefully to make sure it's accurate.
Note that you may see various spellings of your name, but this is common as some companies may make mistakes on applications or preliminary offer checks. You'll also see any nicknames or abbreviations of your name you’ve used, along with maiden and married last names.
One thing to be aware of are any addresses you don’t recognize, which could be a sign of attempted fraud.
The next section you'll see on your credit report is your account information, also called "trade lines", which are the actual accounts you have open and closed.
Here's what it looks like on the TransUnion report, which includes a "ratings key" to signal if you've paid these accounts on time, late, or not at all.
Then you will see your accounts listed out one by one, showing your account types, dates opened, credit limits, balances, and payment histories in great detail.
Let's look at an example from TransUnion so you can really visualize it.
This is showing a high-level snapshot of an account with American Express, with the actual account number right next to it (which is blurred out above).
Then TransUnion provides the following details for this account:
Then below the overview is where you really get the details.
Your credit report will show your entire payment history for every one of your accounts, going all the way back to when you opened the account.
Above you can see what this looks like on the TransUnion report—for every single month, it shows any outstanding balance, any amount that's past due, and whether you paid on time or were late.
Here's the truth: this is probably the most important area of your entire credit report to check for fraud. If you see accounts on your report that you didn’t open, it’s important to flag these for yourself, because we're going to be disputing them in the next chapter of this guide.
We recommend printing out your credit reports and highlighting any issues you'd like to dispute.
Credit inquiries (hard vs. soft)
The next section of your credit report will show any inquiries, which are basically when a lender or other entity requests to pull your credit.
For example, say you applied for a new credit card recently. Well, in order for the credit card company to make a determination as to whether you're a worthy borrower, they pulled your credit report to review it and see what kind of borrower you are.
This is called a hard inquiry.
And here's what they look like on Experian's report. You'll see Experian will tell you the name of the lender, when the inquiry took place, and when it's scheduled to fall of your report.
We have a whole guide on removing hard inquiries step-by-step which you can check out here:
We also want to point out that Experian will break out "soft inquiries" on your report as well, like this:
Soft inquiries include things like when an employer does a background check on you, or even when you request a copy of your credit report—which is what is actually shown in the screenshot above: when I requested a copy of my credit report from Experian, it shows up on my Experian report as a soft inquiry.
Here's what you need to know about soft inquiries: they do NOT count against your credit score, and therefore they cannot be disputed. In other words, you don't really have to worry about them.
We've put together this comparison table to give you a quick breakdown of hard vs soft inquiries, if you're interested:
Public records & collections
The final two sections of your credit report could include public records and/or collections.
There is only one type of public record that you would now find on your credit report: bankruptcy, which can stay on your credit report for 7-10 years, depending on whether you filed for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
As for collections, this section would list any accounts that are seriously past due. Basically, when you fail to pay back a loan or credit, the creditor may turn your account over to a debt collection agency.
Collections can significantly damage your credit score, and can be really hard to remove from your credit report. You can read more about them here.
Ok, at this point you have your credit reports in hand, and you've read through them with a fine tooth comb and actually know what's on your credit report—now it's time to take action and dispute any errors on your report.
About the Author
Mike is a recognized credit expert and founder of Credit Takeoff. His credit advice has been featured in Investopedia, CreditCards.com, Bankrate, Huffpost, The Simple Dollar, Reader's Digest, LendingTree, and Quickbooks. Read more.