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What’s a Credit Bureau? Examining the Top 3 Bureaus

By Dan Miller · October 13, 2022 · 6 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

What’s a Credit Bureau? Examining the Top 3 Bureaus

Credit bureaus are companies that gather and store credit-related information on just about every adult in the United States. There are three major credit bureaus, or credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

The information collected by the credit bureaus is used to make financial decisions that have a major impact on the lives of many Americans. While credit bureaus themselves don’t make lending decisions, lenders rely on the information that credit bureaus provide to judge individuals’ creditworthiness.

What Is a Credit Bureau?

A credit bureau is a company that gathers credit and debt information about consumers. The three major credit bureaus in the U.S. — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — also sell credit reports and credit scores to creditors, such as credit card issuers and mortgage lenders.

Credit bureaus keep a database of historical financial records about consumers. This may include information like the total number of credit or loan accounts you have open, your current account balances, and your payment history.

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How Does a Credit Bureau Work?

Credit bureaus work by detailing and cataloging credit and loan transactions. The bureaus get their information from a variety of sources, including public records and information reported by lenders.

Not all third parties report to each of the three bureaus, which is why you may see different information on credit reports provided by different bureaus. If a lender wants one report that has information from all three major credit bureaus, they’ll need to get a tri-merge credit report.

Why Are Credit Bureaus Important?

Credit bureaus serve an important role in the overall financial markets. While credit bureaus do not make lending decisions themselves, they provide historical financial information on consumers to potential lenders and creditors. This information is used by potential lenders when deciding whether or not to issue you credit, which is why it’s important to regularly review your credit report and dispute a credit report if there’s any incorrect information.

Credit Bureau Regulations

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) regulates the credit bureaus and helps ensure that consumers are protected. One part of the FCRA states that information held by each credit bureau cannot be given to someone without authorization or a valid purpose. The FCRA also has a provision that gives every American the ability to see their credit report for free at least once per year.

The 3 Major Credit Bureaus

As previously mentioned, there are three major credit bureaus in the U.S. While not the only credit credit bureaus in the country, these are the three credit bureaus that dominate the collection and dispersal of information.

Equifax

Equifax was founded in 1899 and is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. With 13,000 employees in total, Equifax operates in 25 countries.

Experian

Experian traces its roots back to 1826 and is currently a conglomeration of several different companies. Headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, Experian currently has over 20,000 employees working in 43 countries around the world.

TransUnion

TransUnion was formed in 1968 by the Union Tank Car Company, a railcar leasing operation. Shortly afterward, they acquired the Credit Bureau of Cook County and got into the credit reporting business. TransUnion currently serves over 30 countries on five continents.

What Information Do the Credit Bureaus Monitor?

Generally speaking, credit bureaus monitor credit and debt information. For example, a credit card issuer might share the number of financial accounts you have, when you opened or closed them, your maximum credit line for each account, and/or your payment history. They may also collect information on debt collections and bankruptcies in your financial history.

How Do Credit Bureaus Use Your Information?

The credit bureaus themselves do not use your information to make any lending or financial decisions. Instead, the credit bureaus simply store and catalog this information. Credit bureaus then sell access to the credit data, allowing lenders and other potential creditors to view information about borrowers for a fee.

When credit card companies report to credit bureaus, the information they provide is added to the credit report for that consumer. This is why credit reports are constantly changing and updating, leading to credit score updates. As such, companies often regularly purchase reports and scores for their current customers.

What Is a Credit Report?

A credit report shares information about how you as a consumer have handled your credit accounts. It contains identifying information about you, such as names you have used, places you have lived, and your birthdate or Social Security Number.

Additionally, a credit report shows information about the different types of credit accounts or credit tradelines that you have or have had. More specifically, this information can include details on payment history, account balances, and credit limits, as well as any derogatory marks, like late payments, civil lawsuits, or bankruptcies.

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Information Included in a Credit Report

Credit reports typically contain the following:

•   Identifying information: This includes your name, address, phone number, birthday, and Social Security number. You may also find information on your current and previous places of employment.

•   Credit summary: This portion of your credit report details any accounts you have, such as credit cards, mortgages, or other loans. Information will include the date the account was opened, the account balance, the highest balance, the credit limit or loan amount, the payment status, and the payment history.

•   Public records: Your credit report also contains information pulled from public records, such as bankruptcies or debt collections. You’ll also see payment defaults and late payments noted.

•   Credit inquiries: In your credit report, you can also see any party that’s requested access to your credit report in the last two years. This could come from a credit card or loan you applied for.

When reading a credit report, it’s important to make sure that the information on it is valid and accurate. Incorrect or inaccurate information on a credit report can lead to higher interest rates or being denied for credit.

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Who Uses Credit Reports?

Credit reports are primarily used by potential lenders or creditors. This might include banks, credit card issuers, or other lenders. Landlords and employers are two other groups that often pull credit reports.

Lenders and creditors use credit reports to assess how creditworthy you are, which may help them determine whether to extend you credit (and at what rate). In the case of landlords and employers, your credit report may help them determine whether to offer housing or an employment opportunity.

What Else Do Credit Bureaus Do?

The main role and responsibility of credit bureaus is to provide credit information to potential lenders and creditors, for a fee. In addition to this main business model, credit bureaus also provide access to credit reports to the consumers themselves. This is to remain in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

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Some Other Credit Bureaus

In the United States, the big three credit bureaus are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These three companies do also maintain credit information in other countries. However, outside of the U.S., there are also country-specific credit bureaus. For example, there is SCHUFA in Germany and UC in Sweden.

Credit Bureaus vs Credit Rating Agencies

Confused on what credit bureaus vs. credit rating agencies are? While both credit bureaus and credit rating agencies provide information on creditworthiness, there are some key differences to be aware of:

Credit Bureaus

Credit Rating Agencies

Primarily focus on individual consumers Rate corporations
Credit ratings use a 3-digit credit score Credit ratings use letters, such as AAA or BB
The top three credit bureaus are Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion The major credit rating agencies are Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch Ratings

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The Takeaway

Credit bureaus gather, maintain, and collate credit information about millions of consumers throughout the United States and across the world. Lenders and potential creditors use this information to make decisions about whether to extend credit, as well as how much and at what rate. In the U.S., the three major credit bureaus are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Any new credit card that you open will appear on your credit report maintained by one or more of these credit bureaus.

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FAQ

Do you need all three credit scores from the major credit bureaus?

Because each of the major credit bureaus uses different sources of information, you may have slightly different information on each credit report. Also, each credit bureau uses the information they have differently in calculating an overall credit score. Because of this, some lenders prefer what is called a tri-merge credit report, which is one report that has information from all three major credit bureaus.

How many credit reporting agencies are there?

There are hundreds of credit reporting agencies throughout the world, each with a different focus. In the United States, there are three main credit reporting agencies or credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

Which credit bureau is used the most?

Although Experian is the largest credit reporting agency, Equifax and TransUnion are generally considered to be just as reliable and accurate. There is not one credit bureau that is necessarily used the most. Instead, it varies by geographical region and the preference of the lender or creditor asking for the credit report.

Why doesn’t my report show a credit score?

There may be a variety of reasons why your credit report doesn’t show a credit score. One of the most common reasons is that the credit bureau does not have enough financial information about you to make an accurate decision. When your credit information updates, your credit score updates as well.


Photo credit: iStock/damircudic

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