Getting your free credit reports is an important aspect of managing your credit and keeping tabs on your overall finances.
Fortunately, you don’t have to pay for this. You can actually access each of your credit files online, instantly, and free of charge.
Just go to http://www.AnnualCreditReport.com. That is the federally-mandated website that the government has ordered the credit bureaus to maintain in order to provide consumers with their credit reports each year.
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, all adults in the U.S. are entitled to 1 copy of their credit report every 12 months from each of the “Big 3” credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. So this means you can get all three reports now … and then get them again in another year.
(See related article: Key Differences Between Equifax, Experian and TransUnion Credit Reports)
In the past, I have told people to go to AnnualCreditReport.com and have been disheartened to learn that many people had problems accessing their credit information.
Very rarely, it was due to technical problems with the site. Most access problems arose because people misunderstood certain instructions, weren’t very computer savvy, or they simply didn’t know what to expect — all of which can cause a person to be denied in his or her request for an online credit report.
I’ve since learned that research shows that as many as 20% of consumers who try to get their free credit reports online have difficulty doing so.
To make sure you don’t encounter those difficulties, what follows are four crucial tips and some step-by-step guidance in navigating the AnnualCreditReport.com website.
I hope these insights and instructions will make the process of getting your credit reports smoother, faster and more comprehensible for you.
4 Tips and Step-by-Step Help to Get Your Credit Reports Online
In order to get your free credit reports online, there are some key points about the AnnualCreditReport.com site that you should know ahead of time. So before I explain exactly how to get your credit reports, in step-by-step fashion, keep the following four tips in mind.
Tip #1: First, realize that getting your yearly credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com is truly free — no strings attached — and it’s your right as a consumer. Therefore, you do not have to supply a credit card number or sign up for any trial offers, such as credit monitoring, in order to access your complimentary credit reports. So if you land on any page or third-party website that wants you to pay or supply a credit card number for your credit report, you’re not in the right spot.
NOTE: Obtaining a credit report is separate and apart from obtaining a credit score. Some places (including the credit bureaus) do charge you for credit scores. But to simply get a credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com does not cost any money at all.
Tip #2: Also, know that you will ultimately have to go to each credit bureau’s website separately in order to get your credit files. But you will start from the AnnualCreditReport.com site — and then link to the individual credit bureau sites — in order to access your reports at no charge. You will also have to return to AnnualCreditReport.com, after you get the first credit report, in order to obtain your second or third credit file from the other credit reporting agencies.
Tip #3: The online credit report retrieval system via AnnualCreditReport.com is time sensitive. So you generally need to complete all the steps in one sitting. It should not take you more than five minutes to get a single credit report. But if you leave your computer for some reason and go off to do something else, when you return you may find that the system has booted you offline because there was “no activity” registered in the system for several minutes.
Although there’s no need to rush through the process, you also shouldn’t let “inactivity” (from moving extremely slowly, getting distracted, or going offline to get or do something) cause you to fail to get your credit reports.
Tip #4: Because the AnnualCreditReport.com website is highly secure, uses sophisticated security, and authenticates your identity, you should not use the “back” or “refresh” buttons — especially while waiting for the next screen or set of instructions. If you hit a “back” button or even try to repeat or hurry a step by double-clicking, your session may get interrupted or ended and you will either have to start all over, or order a credit report via mail.
Armed with the above-mentioned four tips, you are now ready to actually get your free credit files from AnnualCreditReport.com.
Once you’re on the home page of AnnualCreditReport.com, you’ll see a red button on the left side. It says: “Request your free credit reports.”
Click that button and on the next page it will describe the 3 steps to get your credit data. Read those three steps (they’re very simple and brief), and then click the red button that says: “Request your credit reports.”
Next, you’ll be guided to a page where you enter your personal information: name, date of birth, social security number and address.
If you haven’t lived at your current residence for two years, you’ll also have to indicate your previous address. Additionally, at the bottom of this page, you must enter CAPTCHA security characters, which are a series of letters and numbers. (This information is required to make sure a live human being, not a spammer using a bot, is entering information).
Click the “next” button to proceed to the following screen.
You will now have the option to select 1, 2 or 3 credit reports. To select a specific credit report, simply click the box next to the name of the credit reporting company whose report you want to obtain.
I suggest you click on all three boxes – to get all of your reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. It’s best to check each report for errors, not just one credit report.
Click the “next” button to proceed to the following screen.
At this point, you will be taken to the credit bureau sites. If you have selected to receive all three reports, you’ll start with Equifax.
For the final part of the process, you need to be prepared to answer several bits of credit information or personal history at each site (i.e. the Equifax, Experian and TransUnion site) in order to verify your identity. They do this as a safety precaution, to make sure you really are who you say you are. They don’t want anyone to fall victim to identity theft.
So each credit bureau will ask you questions to confirm your ID. The questions are generally along the lines of:
— “Your credit files indicate that you took out a mortgage in 2010 with which financial institution?” Then they’ll list about four banks, as well as an option for “none of the above,” and you have to pick the right one.
— Another common question is: “What is the monthly payment for the above referenced loan?” Then they’ll list roughly four different payment ranges, typically within $100 or so of one another, and you have to enter the correct monthly amount.
NOTE: In the example I’ve given, I mentioned a mortgage. But the security question could also reference other debts, such as a student loan or car payment.
— An alternate frequently asked question is a variation on this query: “You previously lived at which of these addresses?” Again, they’ll list several addresses, or provide a “none of the above” option, and you must select the correct answer.
It’s important to know upfront about the ID verification questions because sometimes people forget what their exact mortgage, car note or student loan payment is or was, especially if the loan in question is a former debt that’s been paid in full. But if you select the wrong answer (and the answers may all be close, in dollar terms) the system may kick you out and essentially say: “Sorry, we can’t deliver your online report. You have to order it in the mail.”
If this happens, it’s not the end of the world. Just more time waiting for your credit report, and you have to request it via snail mail or by telephone.
To order your free annual credit report through the mail, print and fill out this form, a 1-page Annual Credit Report Request Form. Mail the form to:
Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281
To get your free annual credit report over the telephone, call this toll-free number: 1-877-322-8228.
Again, although mail and phone options are available, in my opinion it’s much better to get electronic access to your credit files for three reasons:
1) the reports are instantly available online, instead of waiting a few weeks for your credit reports to arrive via mail;
2) you can immediately spot potential fraud or quickly file an online dispute with the credit bureaus if you detect mistakes in your credit reports; and
3) you can also save the online report as a PDF and print it out, or even email it to a spouse, financial advisor or someone else if necessary.
Upon successfully answering the ID security questions, your credit report will appear on screen. You should save it to your desktop or laptop, note your transaction code or order number, and print it out immediately. At some bureaus, you can only print during that initial session when you retrieve your credit report.
Congratulations! You have now received your first annual credit report online — hopefully without any glitches along the way as you navigated the AnnualCreditReport.com website, as well as the credit bureau sites.
Again, remember to download and print your credit file or at least write down your report number. You will need it to re-access your credit information, and the Equifax and Experian credit reporting agencies only maintain these free credit reports online for 30 days. At TransUnion, that credit bureau’s website says that they only let you access your free credit report during that one online session. After that, you can’t gain Internet access to your TransUnion credit file again for another 12 months.
If you requested credit reports from more than one credit bureau, the final step — after you’ve obtained your first credit report — is to click the button on the top right hand side of the screen that says “Get your next report or finish.”
That will take you to a page that explains that you are about to leave that credit bureau’s site. In order to get your next free credit report, from a different credit bureau, find the section that says Obtain Additional Disclosure File(s) and click on the adjacent link that tells you to “return to annualcreditreport.com.”
At this point, you will be taken back to AnnualCreditReport.com. You should see a page that says: “Proceed to the next report you have requested.” On that page, click the red button that says: “Get your next credit report.”
If you have asked for all three credit reports, the next credit file should come from Experian. They will first ask you to verify the last four digits of your Social Security Number.
You will now repeat Step 4 – the identity verification – in order to retrieve other credit files.
If you’ve made it this far, again, congratulations! Monitoring your credit is a vitally important part of maintaining good financial health.
And please know this: Although I’ve carefully laid out in detail the process of getting your free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com, it truly isn’t overly complex once you know what to do and what to expect.
Best of all: by getting your free credit reports — which is something that only about 1 in 4 American adults take the time to do annually – you’re now one step closer to taking your finances to the next level.