The FICO score is the most useful credit score to look at, as it is used in more than 90% of lending decisions. However, many people don't know how to check out their own FICO score, and lots of people who do pay hundreds of dollars each year to get theirs. Fortunately, through a program started by FICO in 2013, getting your score for free has gotten much easier.

The FICO score open access program
In 2013, FICO (a division of the Fair Issac Corporation) started a program designed to give millions of consumers access to their FICO scores for free. Basically, FICO's program allows banks and lenders who pay to check their customers FICO scores to share those scores with the customers at no additional cost.

Now, this is far from a perfect system. For starters, millions of people who really need access to their FICO scores can't qualify for a major credit card or loan account, and therefore are stuck paying for their score. Additionally, since there are three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) that produce consumers' credit reports, and the FICO score is derived from information in those reports, each individual has three FICO scores. All participating companies that I could find only share one FICO score with consumers, so it's possible that other lenders could see a different number than the FICO score you're given.

Still, the program is a great idea – to better inform consumers of where they stand in the credit world, and allow them to see the results of their disciplined credit behavior.

Who offers the FICO score for free?
Banks have been extremely receptive to the program, and seem eager to share FICO information with their customers. So far, the major banks to adopt the program include (in alphabetical order):

  • American Express – Began offering FICO scores to its 42.4 million active cardholders in August 2015
  • Bank of America – Plans to offer FICO scores to certain credit card customers before the end of 2015
  • Barclaycard – Offers FICO scores as well as email alerts to let customers know when their score changes
  • Chase – Provides FICO scores to its approximately 10 million Slate cardholders
  • Citibank – Started offering scores to holders of its Citi-branded cards in January 2015, but not to customers with co-branded cards
  • Discover – Among the first to adopt the FICO program when it began in November 2013, Discover provides the TransUnion version of the FICO score as well as up to one year of previous scores
  • First National Bank of Omaha – Also started providing FICO scores in November 2013

It's also worth mentioning that there could be other credit card issuers who offer free FICO scores by the time you read this. The open access program is still in the adoption phase – meaning that other banks may be planning to participate but aren't yet.

Remember, a "credit score" is not the same thing as a FICO score
Many other credit card companies offer credit scores, and while they can give you a general idea of where you stand, they are nowhere near as useful as FICO scores. For example, some issuers offer the Vantage Score, which is a distant second to FICO in terms of the number of lenders who use it. Others, like Capital One, offer a non-FICO "educational" score that's based on information in your TransUnion credit report.

So, make sure you know what you're looking at when you take advantage of your credit card's free score feature.

How to interpret your FICO score
Your FICO score can be useful to give you an idea of where you stand, and what types of loans you may be able to qualify for. High FICO scores can also give you significant bargaining power when trying to obtain the lowest possible interest rates from lenders. FICO score requirements vary tremendously among lenders, but here's a general guide to help you determine where you stand.

FICO Score What it means
800 or higher Top 20% of consumers
740-799 Top 40% of consumers
670-739 Average credit
580-699 Below average credit
580 or less Lowest 20% of consumers

The bottom line is that it's important to know your FICO score, as it can give you an accurate picture of what lenders will see when you apply for credit. And, if you have one of these credit cards, you won't even have to pay to see it.