While it may sound like semantics, the terms credit report and credit file describe two very different things in the world of consumer credit.
You don’t necessarily need to understand the difference between the two to earn good credit — but, on the other hand, knowledge is power. The more you understand about your credit (what’s in your credit reports, how they are scored), the better equipped you’ll be to achieve and maintain great credit — which can pay you financial dividends for decades.
What’s a credit file? (Because it’s not a credit report.)
The term credit file describes the raw, unsorted data a credit bureau or credit reporting agency (CRA) collects regarding you and your credit management history. It contains the complete set of information that a CRA has collected about you.
The information found in credit files is collected from thousands of data furnishers (companies who report information to the CRAs) and a number of other sources as well.
All of the data collected by each CRA is kept in an electronic pool of sorts. These pools are referred to as credit file databases.
Credit file databases are massive and contain the information pertaining to you alongside the information of some 220+ million other consumers as well. The amount of information in any of the CRA’s credit file databases is truly mind boggling.
Credit files typically include personal information such as your name, aliases, past and present addresses, your Social Security number, your date of birth, your employer, and more. Credit files can also include information pertaining to your credit management history, including collection records, public records, your payment history on a variety of accounts, a list of credit inquiries, and so on.
What’s a credit report? (Because it’s not a credit file.)
If a credit file can be described as a pool, then you can think of your credit report as your information fished out of that pool with a net.
One of the ways the CRAs make money is by selling your information to lenders and other companies that are legally permitted to access the data. They sell your credit report, not your credit file.
So your credit report is a one-time extraction of the information contained in their credit file database, often delivered to lenders with a credit score.
You can also purchase or request a free copy of your credit report as well, but this type of report is formally referred to as a consumer disclosure.
Key Differences Between a Credit File and Credit Report
The data about you in a credit file is updated frequently. The information may change, for example, whenever a creditor updates your account management history each month. It can also change anytime you apply for or open a new account, or anytime a new collection account is reported to a credit reporting agency against you.
By contrast, the information in your credit report will only change whenever a new copy of the report is requested and delivered.
It’s also important to understand that your credit scores are not a part of the credit file. Instead, a credit score is generated whenever a lender requests a copy of your credit report and orders a score. You may also personally be able to purchase or access your credit score whenever you request a copy of your consumer disclosure.
However, any credit score is only an evaluation of the information on your credit report at that specific moment in time. Your score is not stored in any credit file and your score is likely to be different the next time it is requested.
Now, don’t get all twisted up about these different terms. Yes, you can still ask for your credit file and everyone will know what you’re actually asking for. But if you were talking to a room full of bankers, then you’d need to use the proper terminology.
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John Ulzheimer is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books on the topic and has been interviewed and quoted thousands of times over the past 10 years. With time spent at 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.