Free Credit Report vs. Credit Monitoring

If you’re interested in finding out your credit score, chances are you’ll be looking into ordering a credit report online, or possibly enrolling in a credit monitoring program.

When inquiring about your credit history, you’ll be faced with a variety of choices, from the truly free credit report offered at to the “free credit reports” offered by the three credit bureaus and other independent credit report companies, and finally the credit monitoring programs offered by your bank and/or credit card issuers.

It’s important to distinguish the differences between these credit reporting options to ensure you know what you’re getting, and also what you need.

When deciding on a type of credit report, you should start by determining what your needs are. Do you want to find out your credit score, or are you more concerned with possible fraud or misreporting? Do you need constant credit monitoring, or do you just want to do a one-off credit check?

And finally, do you just want to see your credit score simply so you can compare it to family and friends, or do you need to dispute items on your credit report?

The Real Free Credit Report

If you don’t need to know your credit score and you don’t want to pay anything, try the free credit report at You essentially get a free credit report without a credit card; it’s a government-backed program that ensures consumers receive a credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every 12 months upon request.

That said, it’s important to note that these credit reports are not tri-merge, and you must order all three separately to create your own version of a tri-merge credit report.

Not only that, but you won’t receive a free credit score with these free credit reports either. These credit reports are very “no frills,” and offer no tools to dispute your credit, so for many consumers it may not be what they’re looking for.

“Free Credit Reports”

The “free credit reports” offered by independent credit reporting companies and the credit bureaus themselves are often tri-merge credit reports, and also tend to contain three separate credit scores. These are effectively the best credit reports money can buy. Not only do they give you data from all three major credit bureaus, but they also contain a credit score from each bureau as well.

They are also “free,” meaning they usually offer a free trial period for 30 days or some other limited period of time.

So you can essentially order a free credit report and cancel within 30 days to get your money back, or avoid being charged at all.

Just be sure you’re diligent enough to cancel the service in time, and watch out for misleading pricing plans. Otherwise it turns into a credit monitoring program with recurring monthly payments and can get quite expensive.

Credit Monitoring Programs

Lastly, you can use a pure credit monitoring program offered by your local bank or from one of the credit bureaus that basically offers the same services as the “free credit reports,” except with a monthly fee that is often non-refundable.

The only distinguishing characteristic between these programs and the “free credit reports” may be the lack of a trial period, though the credit monitoring programs may offer more extensive tools to dispute erroneous items. And they usually offer fraud protection. But in most cases, these services aren’t necessary, nor worth the recurring monthly fee.

And nowadays there are plenty of free alternatives that offer really robust and timely data, including Credit Karma and Credit Sesame, to name just two. I just both to keep an eye on my credit so there’s no need to pay for any other service.

I also receive a free FICO score via my Discover it credit card, so again, no real need to bother signing up elsewhere or pay a dime.

If you’re unsure about where to start, it may be wise to order free credit reports from all three bureaus separately through first.

At that point you can assess the situation to see if a free trial credit report or a paid credit monitoring service is necessary.

Read more: Where do you rank on the credit score range?

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