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Different Credit Bureaus, Different FICO Scores

What Are Credit Bureaus and Why Are They Giving Me Different Scores?

My first introduction to the fact that there are 3 different credit bureaus and they give different scores was a rude awakening: I was getting a loan, and the lender used the lowest of my three credit ratings to determine the interest rate they offered me. I was surprised to hear I had three different credit scores and to find out that most lenders have a preferred credit bureau when they are pulling scores. But the truth is stranger—you could have hundreds of credit scores.

If you are not someone who regularly obtains and reviews their credit report, perhaps you only discovered there are different credit bureaus after hearing about the massive Equifax hack reported recently. Equifax is one of the three major credit bureaus, or credit reporting agencies, that compiles credit reports on individuals.

So what are these bureaus and why do they give different scores?

A short history

Credit reporting agencies sprung up in the U.S. in the mid-1800s as successors to mutual protection societies, roundtables, or other groups that exchanged notes with each other on whether a particular individual was paying his or her bills.

The credit reporting agencies collected more information than mutual protection societies and some established nationwide networks of agencies that exchanged information. Unlike mutual protection societies, these credit reporting agencies allowed third parties to access credit reports on individuals, for a fee.

Today, there are three major credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Each bureau gathers information on an individual’s debt amount, kind of debt (whether credit card, store card, etc), payment history, and other elements related to credit patterns. They use that information to calculate a three-digit score, which is a simple way of conveying credit worthiness.

Although the information collected by each agency is similar, it is not identical. And each agency has their own “special sauce”—their own special algorithm they use to calculate credit scores.

There are different credit scores that could be used for different purposes. Some of those scores you can buy, some you can get for free, and some you will not be able to access unless you are a company. The most important score is your FICO score.

What is a FICO score?

FICO is a company that started in 1956 as Fair, Isaac and Company. Fair was an engineer and Isaac was a mathematician, and they collaborated on a credit scoring system which they started selling to American lenders.

The FICO score is now the industry standard. FICO scores are based on credit reports, and thus vary among the three credit bureaus because they each have their own credit report for you. FICO also has customized scores for specific types of loans. Scores generally range from 300 to 850, 850 being the best.

FICO scores may vary by as much as 50 points between the bureaus, but they may also fluctuate with each 30-day credit cycle. So when you try to compare your FICO scores, pull them at the same time if you want a fair comparison. You can get your FICO scores from TransUnion and Equifax by buying them or getting them through a credit union or card provider that gives it to you for free. Experian does not allow you to access your own FICO score.


Equifax has been around for a while. It was founded in the late 1800s as the Retail Credit Company. They expanded nationwide by the 1920s and renamed the company Equifax in 1975.

Equifax scores range from 280 to 850. They use their own model to calculate your credit score. They use FICO scores but call them Beacon scores. 


TransUnion started in 1968 as a holding company for a rail transportation equipment company. They now have more than 250 offices in the U.S. and offices in 24 other countries.

TransUnion uses the standard FICO scoring system, called Empirica, which uses elements such as your payment record, credit history, type of credit, and total amount owed to calculate your score. Scores range from 300 to 850.


Experian was the latecomer of the credit bureaus. It started in 1980 in England as CCN Systems, and expanded to the United States in 1006. They are now in 36 countries. Experian uses the Plus score system, with scores that range from 330 to 830.

And so?

So, if you are looking to get a loan or a mortgage, be informed of which FICO score they will pull. If you have time and the need, you can improve your credit score. Find out what FICO scores you have, and work toward improving your payment history, paying down debt, and getting the loan you want!

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Kaycee Cuaira's picture

Kaycee Cuaira is a Texas-barred lawyer with an affinity for personal finance and planning. She has lived in Brazil, India, and Mozambique but prefers to live in places with four seasons.

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