Thanks to the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACT Act) passed on 2003, once every 12 months, consumers are entitled to free access to their formerly secret credit reports from the three major credit reporting bureaus -- Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. The official website where you can nab your freebies:

Unfortunately, when it comes to getting your credit score -- the three-digit, bottom-line money GPA based on the information in your credit reports -- Uncle Sam doesn't pick up the tab (although legislation is pending). 

"Free" Credit Scores Are Now Free
Until recently, getting your credit score required either forking over a handful of dollars up front to one of the credit reporting bureaus or another other data broker, or signing up for a trial to a credit monitoring service, getting your "free" score, then remembering to cancel the service before monthly automatic billing kicked in.

But now corporate America (including many banks and credit card issuers) has stepped up to offer free no-money-down, no-credit card-number-necessary access to this all-important piece of credit data.

Get Your Free Credit Score Here
The following companies offer a free score, updated monthly:

  • bases its score on what's reported in your Experian credit file.
  • gives away two free credit scores derived from your Equifax and TransUnion credit files. (It also provides Auto Insurance and Home Insurance scores from TransUnion.)
  •'s score uses Experian credit file data.
  •'s score is based on your Equifax report.

Is this my real credit score? Yes, but it is a consumer version of your score. Businesses use customized formulas to generate scores tailored for their needs. Even so, your consumer score reflects generally how potential lenders see you. Two main companies providing credit scores for industry and consumer use: 

  • FICO from Fair Isaac Corp is the "Kleenex" of credit scoring and is used in more than 90% of all lending decisions. 
  • VantageScore is the credit rating product that the three major credit bureaus created via a joint venture in order to compete with FICO, although it is still a distant second in terms of adoption.

Does checking my credit score hurt my credit rating? Nope. Check your credit score as often as you like (or are allowed by the company providing free access). But there's really no reason to check it more than once a month, which is about how often new data is fed into your credit files. 

What's the catch? Even though entering a credit card or taking a free product trial is not mandatory to claim your free score, companies will still ask if you're interested.These sites make money by either upselling you into one of their subscription services or by carrying ads from third-party advertisers. 

Bottom line: What does this number mean?
Based on the general credit score range of 300 to 850 that is used by most credit score providers, here's what you can expect:

  • 760-850: You're golden and will get the best interest rates on loans. 
  • 710-760: Though you're not quite a VIP, qualifying for competitive offers is no problem. 
  • 650-710: Approval is easy, but platinum status isn't likely. 
  • 580-650: You qualify for credit at subpar rates and so-so terms. 
  • 580 and below: Brace for denial and/or loan-shark rates. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.