What Scoring Model Does Your Free Credit Score Use?

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Is your free credit score worth the price?

Being aware of your credit scores can help you apply for the right credit products. In the immortal words of the 1980s animated G.I. Joe series, "Knowing is half the battle."

These days, every app and its brother seems to offer a free credit score with just a few clicks, which makes it easier than ever to keep tabs on your scores. But the value of those free scores can vary greatly depending on where they're from and how they're calculated.

Why? At any given time, you could have dozens of credit scores -- all real and legitimate. Not only do you have different scores depending on the credit bureau used to furnish the data, but the specific credit scoring model used will also play a major role.

FICO, VantageScore, and the three credit bureaus

Credit scores are based on the data in your credit reports. There are three main credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- and you have a distinct credit report with each bureau. Each bureau collects its data independently, so the information on your reports can vary from bureau to bureau.

Right off the bat, your credit score could be different depending on which credit report the lender checks. But that's just the tip of the credit score iceberg. The major variations come from which specific credit scoring model is used to calculate your score.

The two main credit scoring agencies are FICO -- short for Fair Isaac Corporation -- and VantageScore. Each has different scoring algorithms, called scoring models. FICO has been around for more than 40 years, and it is the most commonly used. FICO has literally dozens of scoring models, including specific ones for different products like auto loans and credit cards. However, the FICO® Score 8 is the most common.

VantageScore was actually created as part of a collaboration between the three credit scoring agencies. It's not nearly as popular as FICO, though its market share is steadily growing. There are only a handful of different VantageScore models, with the VantageScore 3.0 being the most popular.

Free credit score source by credit card issuer

Since the majority of lenders use some version of your FICO® Scores for approval, you'll want to use FICO credit scores to gauge your status before applying for a new credit card or loan. VantageScore data, on the other hand, is most useful as a general credit education tool or as a credit health check. You'll also want to see scores from each of the three bureaus to get a big-picture look at your overall credit profile.

Unfortunately, those free credit score apps with all the commercials? Nearly all of them use the VantageScore 3.0, which is less useful than a FICO credit score. What's more, nearly all the popular apps use data from the same credit bureau: TransUnion.

You don't need to download yet another mobile app to keep tabs on your credit scores. In fact, if you have a credit card, you may already have access to a free credit score that's updated once a month. Many issuers will even track your score for up to 12 months so you can see your progress.

Here's a look at the main card issuers to see which scoring model and credit bureau each one uses to generate your free score.

Card Issuer Scoring Model Credit Bureau
American Express VantageScore® 3.0 TransUnion
Bank of America FICO® Score 8 TransUnion
Capital One VantageScore® 3.0 TransUnion
Chase VantageScore® 3.0 Experian
Citi FICO® Bankcard Score 8 Equifax
Discover FICO® Score 8 TransUnion
U.S. Bank VantageScore® 3.0 Experian
Wells Fargo FICO® Score 9 Experian

With the right combination of credit cards, you can get credit scores from multiple bureaus and even different scoring models. That's a whole lot of knowledge to use in your credit battles. Keep in mind that lenders may use product-specific scoring -- like the FICO® Auto Score for your car loan. Some even have their own internal models that weigh things a bit differently. However, with a variety of credit scores at your fingertips, you can have a strong idea of where you stand.

Some banks require you to have a credit card to access your free credit score, others offer free scores to checking account customers. And a handful of issuers, including Discover and Capital One, offer free scores to any consumer who signs up, even without a credit or bank account.

Arm up with knowledge

No matter how long you've been building credit, there's always that moment of dread while waiting for a credit card application or loan approval. But when you already know your credit scores, you can ease some of the worry by applying for credit products that fit your credit profile.

Getting your credit scores is easier than ever, but even free scores may not be worth the effort if they're misleading. The where and how of your free scores can be the difference between a great financial weapon -- and a dud.

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