Hard Inquiries and Soft Pulls on Your Credit Report: What’s the Difference?

Sometimes, having your credit reports pulled can lower your credit scores. Other times, a credit inquiry won’t affect your credit scores at all.

The question is, do you know how to tell the difference? The answer comes down to the difference between hard and soft credit inquiries.

Soft and Hard Credit Inquiries: The Basics

The term “inquiry” describes the event that occurs whenever some party is granted access to one or more of your credit reports.

If you’ve taken the time to review your credit reports lately, you may have noticed a list of credit inquiries on those reports. On some credit report formats, the inquiry section is called “Companies that accessed your credit report,” or some reasonable variation. Your credit reports will display the name of any company that has pulled your credit profile, as well as the date of the access.

These inquiries can sometimes lower your credit scores. Yet, there are other times when credit inquiries won’t impact your credit scores at all.

There are two different categories when it comes to credit inquiries: hard and soft. Here are some examples of each…

Hard InquiriesSoft Inquiries
Credit card applicationsChecking your own credit report
Mortgage applicationsPre-approved credit offers
Personal loan applicationsEmployment screening credit checks
Auto loan applicationsAccount maintenance credit checks by current creditors
Collection agency skip tracingCredit checks by insurance companies

Hard inquiry: May lower your credit score

Hard inquiries are those that do have the potential to lower your credit scores. You may have noticed a pattern in the above table that hard inquiries generally occur whenever you take the action of applying for new credit.

On the surface, it may seem unfair that merely allowing someone to check your credit might somehow lower your credit scores. However, credit score developers like FICO and VantageScore can clearly show a correlation between how frequently someone applies for new credit and the level of credit risk they pose going forward. That’s the answer to the question, “Why can inquiries lower my credit scores?”

How long do hard inquiries stay on your credit report and impact your score?

As a rule, you’ll want to avoid having your credit reports pulled unnecessarily. But it’s also helpful to remember that while hard inquiries typically will remain on your credit reports for two years, credit scoring models will only consider them for their first 12 months.

Also remember that, of all the factors that contribute to your credit score – including your bill payment history and outstanding balances – credit inquiries have the lowest impact. So if you have a few of them already, don’t freak out.

Soft inquiry: Will not lower your credit scores

Soft credit inquiries, on the other hand, will not impact your credit scores in any way.

As you can see from the table above, checking your own credit report falls into the soft inquiry category. This means you should never be afraid of damaging your credit scores by checking your own credit reports, despite myths to the contrary.

In fact, not only will soft pulls never hurt your credit scores, these inquiries will only show up when you’re checking your own credit reports. If a lender pulls your credit report, the soft inquiries will not even be visible. You’re the only one who can see them.

Don’t Make This Mistake

After 26 years in the credit industry, I’d like to believe I’ve heard it all… including the following mistake: If you have a friend who works at a car dealership or as a mortgage broker, don’t ever ask them to pull your credit for you.

Their credit report terminals are hard-coded so that every single credit report they pull results in a hard inquiry from either their car dealership or mortgage broker. To the outside world, it looks like you just applied for auto financing or a mortgage loan, and your credit score may temporarily suffer for it.

What’s more, unless you actually applied for a car loan or a mortgage, then your “friend” just caused his or her employer to violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act’s Permissible Purpose provision, which says that credit reports can only be accessed for legitimate purposes. Having a buddy pull your credit reports, outlaw style, is not a legitimate purpose. Just sayin’.

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John Ulzheimer

Contributing Writer

John Ulzheimer is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. The author of four books on the subject, Ulzheimer has been featured thousands of times over the past decade in media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, NBC Nightly News, The Los Angeles Times, CNBC, and countless others. With professional experience at both Equifax and FICO, Ulzheimer is the only credit expert who actually comes from the credit industry. He has been an expert witness in over 230 credit related lawsuits and has been qualified to testify in both federal and state courts on the topic of consumer credit.