What exactly is a credit file and how is it different from a credit report?

Want to know the details that make up your credit file? Find out why the credit bureaus are keeping tabs on your financial moves.

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File labels showing financial and personal filing system

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Even though George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, it’d be unlikely that a creditor would approve him for a loan without taking a gander at his credit file. Whether it’s a credit card, personal loan or home loan, somewhere down the line your credit file is going to be a determining factor for how much — if approved — you’re able to borrow.

In a world where you can swipe plastic nearly everywhere, having a solid understanding of your consumer credit file and knowing how to avoid being credit invisible will put you in the best possible position to be approved when applying for credit.

What is a credit file?

A credit file is a collection of raw information consisting of personal and financial details obtained from credit card providers, banks, mortgage and loan providers, and any other services you’ve borrowed money from. Your financial information is stored in a massive credit file database and used by credit reporting agencies to calculate your credit score.

What makes up your credit file is a variety of raw data including:

  • Personal details
  • Account information
  • Debts accumulated
  • Defaults and other black marks
  • Credit inquires
  • Past and present employers

The three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — gather information from credit files and display it the form of a credit report to give lenders an idea whether borrowers run the risk of defaulting, going bankrupt or mismanaging their debts.

Do all bureaus have the same information for my credit file?

While different bureaus may have similar information, one bureau may have an account on file that the other has overlooked because not every lender reports their activity to all three bureaus.

Is it time you check your credit score?

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Get quarterly access to your most widely used FICO® Scores and a 3-bureau credit report.
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Monitor your key business relationships to protect your company from losses.
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$1 for a seven-day trial to get access to your credit score and credit report from TransUnion.

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Save money and build credit with a secured-installment loan that you can access after 12 or 24 months.
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Credit file vs. credit report

Think of your credit file as a database of all the raw information, and your credit report as an organized presentation of that data. Instead of having consumers and lenders trying to make sense out of the overwhelming jumble of words and numbers in a credit file, the credit report comes in the form of an easily readable breakdown including:

  • Personal information. Your name and date of birth, your current address, where you work, your gender and Social Security number are listed in your credit report.
  • Account information. This could list any revolving accounts (lines of credit and credit cards), all open and closed accounts or installment credit (auto, student or home loans). The report will also show the dates accounts were opened, the dates they were closed, the credit limit and most importantly — your payment history. The credit report typically shows payment activity from the last 24 months. Overdue and missed payments will likely be listed underneath each account.
  • Credit inquiries. This includes credit applications you’ve made in the last two years (whether they were approved or not) and the types of credit accounts, such as credit cards or personal loans.
  • Joint applicants. If you’ve applied for any loans or credit cards as a joint borrower, this will be listed on your personal report.
  • Collection accounts. Any account that you’ve defaulted on that’s went into collections will typically be listed on your report.
  • Public record information. This section can contain any information that’s held in the public record including bankruptcy, court judgments, wage garnishment, foreclosures and repossessions. A repossession or foreclosure can stay on your credit report for 7 years, while bankruptcy can leave a black mark for as long as 10 years.

Keep in mind that your credit score is associated with your credit report and not your credit file. This means your credit score could potentially change for the better or worse each time your request a new credit report.

Guide to your credit report

How long is information held on my credit report?

The burning question that everyone wants to know — how long is that unpaid credit card bill going to stay on my credit report? It’s the negative listings such as bankruptcies and overdue accounts that’ll linger and affect your ability to borrow.

Type of listingLength of time
Late paymentsUp to 7 years
Credit inquiries1-2 years
ForeclosureUp to 7 years
Collection accountsUp to 7 years (plus 180 days from the delinquency date)
Court judgementUp to 7 years depending on the state
BankruptcyUp to 10 years (Chapter 13 may be removed after 7 years)
Accounts listed as charge-offsUp to 7 years

What’s a thin credit file?

A thin credit file is essentially a lack of reported information regarding your credit accounts. A thin credit file is a signal that:

  • You may’ve never had a credit account
  • You haven’t been actively using credit in the past few years
  • You’ve just opened an account that’s too new to report on
  • You have a split credit file
  • You pay for everything in cash
  • The credit bureau mistakenly thinks your deceased

What’s a split credit file

It’s uncommon, but a split credit file is when credit bureaus have too much information on an individual and deliver the credit file fragmented in multiple files, resulting in a thin credit history. This credit reporting error could be due to higher than usual account activity, repeated changes in name or address or too many inquiries.

A split file can be fixed by comparing the information side by side from all three bureaus, identifying which bureau is misreporting your credit information and then contacting the bureau with the split file to request the files be merged.

Don’t stress, everyone has started off with a thin credit file at one point or another.

How can I build my credit file?

There are several different ways to plump up your thin credit file, however, it takes a few weeks to report your credit activity and a minimum of six months to compute a credit score.

Here are some common solutions used to make an invisible credit file appear healthy to the credit bureaus:

  • If you’ve never had credit, think about applying for a secured credit card.
  • If you haven’t actively been using credit, responsibly managing a small loan or unsecured credit card can do the trick.
  • If a credit bureau thinks your dead (which you’re not because you’re reading this), contact the bureau and ask them to correct their mistake. You could also send in a written dispute to let them know you’re alive — your dispute may need to be notarized.

Other ways to thicken up your file if you’re credit invisible

  • Open a joint account or get a cosigner for a loan if you’re having trouble being approved for credit.
  • If you have an existing checking or savings account, it’s likely that you’ll be approved for a credit card through your bank.
  • Apply for a gas or store credit card — why not build credit while shopping at Target?
  • Go to your credit union or local bank and apply for a credit builder loan. With this type of loan, you build credit by making monthly payments that are stored in a savings account. Once you’ve saved the amount of the loan, the money is yours.
  • Ask a family member or close friend to become an authorized user on their credit card account. The activity linked to the account is reported on your credit file, thus helping you build credit. As an authorized user, someone else is vouching that you’ll use their account responsibly, so it’s best to manage your usage carefully.

Apply for a credit card and become credit visible

Bottom line

Your credit file is going to be peered upon by a bunch of eyes, and you should stay on top of it to make sure that it’s correct and not too thin so you can maintain a healthy credit score.

A lack of credit doesn’t mean you have to ditch using cash, but opening a line or two of credit now (that’s managed responsibly) can only help prove your creditworthiness when you’re applying for a financial product in the future.

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