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What Is My Real Credit Score?

Colin GrubbNov 29, 2016

A Hypothetical Scenario:

You are at your local credit union applying for a small business loan. You’re pretty certain you’re going to get it because you checked your score with a free online service and it was within the qualifying range. The bank officer regretfully tells you that you will not be getting the loan because your credit is insufficient. He then reveals the actual score the bank’s hard pull of your credit came up with.

And it’s a lot lower than the one you got from

Why was the free credit score different from the one the bank showed you?

Google “free credit score” and see what comes up. You’ll no doubt find no shortage of websites who are willing to provide you with your score and credit report at no cost. But what score are you actually getting? Is it TransUnion, Equifax, Experian? Why are the scores different between the bureaus? And why might a given bureau’s score not be the same on a different website?

To answer these questions we’ll have to first briefly take a look at the history of the credit score.

FICO rolled out its credit score model in 1989. The company created scoring algorithms customized to each of the three major credit bureaus. Because of this, and the fact that each independently functioning bureau may have different information in your credit report, official FICO scores can be different depending on the credit bureau.

What’s An “Official FICO Score?”

Your official FICO score is determined by five, differently weighted factors. Official means it comes directly from FICO. This is important because, for a variety of historical and market reasons, 90% of lending decisions in the United States are going to take this official FICO score into consideration.

This was the score obtained with the hard pull in the above scenario.

FICO frequently redevelops its scoring model to make sure it still accurately predicts risk in a changing financial climate. The most used version is FICO 8. Lenders adopt the updates at their discretion, so you may have obtained a FICO 8 score while the financial entity you are trying to work with is still using a previous version.

To complicate things even further, there are different, industry-specific scores within each FICO version. These include independent scores for car loans, credit cards, home loans, etc.

How Do I Get My Official FICO Score?

You can get your official FICO scores from all three bureaus directly from FICO at This includes FICO 8, the brand new FICO 9, and the different scores according to industry. However, this is a pay service.

The other way to get the official score is through credit card providers. Many credit card issuers are now offering free official FICO scores if you open an account. You can monitor all three bureaus depending on the issuer. For example:

Discover – TransUnion FICO Score 8
Citibank – Equifax FICO Bankcard Score 8
Chase Slate – Experian FICO Score 8

Discover alone will actually give you the score for free even if you are not a customer.

So What Score Do I Have?

If you used a free online service to get your credit score, you most likely have a VantageScore.

Established in 2006, VantageScore is scoring model independent of FICO. It was developed jointly by the TransUnion, Equifax and Experian to compete with FICO. Unlike FICO though, VantageScore’s method for analyzing credit reports and producing a score is employed identically across all three bureaus. However, free credit websites using VantageScore could still give you differing scores by bureau. This is because although the algorithm is the same, once again each agency can have different information in their particular report.

Why Is My VantageScore Different From My FICO Score?

As mentioned above, FICO and VantageScore use different models to analyze your credit reports and generate a score. There are a few criteria which could account for a discrepancy between the two scores.

  • FICO essentially treats all types of late payments the same. VantageScore penalizes you more for specific types of late payments, for example mortgage payments.
  • FICO allows you 45 days to shop for a car or mortgage, and will treat all hard pulls within this time accordingly. VantageScore only allows you 14 days.
  • VantageScore ignores all paid collections; FICO ignores any collections under $100.

Currently, knowing your official FICO score is still the best way to gauge your potential creditworthiness with lenders and credit card companies. However, this is changing.

Part of the reason FICO scores are so ubiquitous has to do with the fact that they are used exclusively by large government agencies like Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac. In 2015, a bill was brought before congress to change this. Also, VantageScore is increasingly being used by lenders in everyday financial transactions like applying for credit cards and auto loans.

What Is My Real Credit Score?

Easy. Your “real credit score” is whatever score the person you are trying to get a loan or credit card from is pulling at the time. That all that matters really.

And since there is generally no way of telling which score a creditor is going to pull, it’s our opinion that you do your best to be aware of both your FICO and VantageScore from TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.

Our advertising partner Credit Sesame provides your free credit score and credit monitoring with no credit card information required. Sources like Credit Sesame execute a soft pull on your credit so it will not affect your score either. The company offers a wealth of online tools and expert assistance to help manage your finances. And if you sign up for the Pro Credit plan you'll get daily TransUnion score updates, monthly score updates from all three bureaus, and 35 different types of immediate alerts if any changes are detected to your credit report.