What is Your Starting Credit Score and How Do You Build Credit?

DEBT & CREDIT HELP - CREDIT SCORE & REPAIR
Your credit score doesn’t exist until you start using credit. Here’s how to use credit effectively to earn a high score.
Updated April 17, 2024
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Your credit score is a reflection of how responsibly you use credit. If you’ve never used credit, such as through a credit card or even taking out student loans, then there’s nothing to score. You won’t start out with a zero score; you simply won’t have a registered credit score at all.

There are a few ways you can get a credit score, but it can take up to six months to become scorable. Think of that time as an opportunity to show the credit bureaus that you know how to manage your money. With the right tips and tools, and a little bit of patience, you can establish a good credit score that will open up doors to the best borrowing options for your future.

In this article

What credit score do you start with?

Everyone starts with no credit score. Think of it as starting a new course at school where you haven’t completed assignments yet. You don’t start with an A+ or an F. It's not a bad credit score, there simply isn’t enough data yet to generate a grade.

Generally, getting a credit score happens in the following steps:

  1. You apply for credit or use an alternative strategy, such as qualifying your on-time utility payments with Experian Boost
  2. The credit issuer or lender sends information about you to one or more of the three major credit bureaus
  3. That credit bureau opens a credit file for you in its system
  4. When someone requests the information from your credit file, including yourself, it is organized into a credit report, which makes the information easier to evaluate.
  5. Once you’ve made several payments and there is enough information on the credit report to generate a score, potential lenders can request that score to assess your creditworthiness.

How long this takes depends on the credit scoring model used. For example, to get a FICO credit score, you’ll need at least six months of credit history. Generally speaking, that first credit score won’t be the lowest or the highest score, but will start somewhere in the middle and improve with the right habits over time.

What are the three major credit bureaus?

Credit bureaus are the companies that create credit reports from financial information, such as your payment history, and provide them to entities looking to evaluate you. You can find a full list of consumer reporting agencies from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but the three most common credit bureaus you need to know about are:

  • Equifax
  • Experian
  • Transunion

Not all lenders and credit issuers report to all three bureaus. Because each of these credit bureaus may have different information about you, your credit report with each may look slightly different. You can get a free copy of your credit reports for all three agencies from sites such as AnnualCreditReport.com.

What are the different types of credit scores?

Credit scoring companies take the information on your credit report and apply mathematical formulas to create a credit score, which is a snapshot of how responsible you’ve been with using credit.

Each credit scoring company uses a unique scoring model and also uses different versions of that credit scoring model for different purposes. Because you have several different credit reports, and several scoring models are used to calculate your credit score, you can technically have a multitude of credit scores.

However, the most common credit scoring companies you need to know about are FICO and VantageScore, as these are the companies that lenders and credit issuers work with the most. FICO scores are the more popular of the two.

Credit scoring company FICO VantageScore
Year established 1989 2006
Credit score ranges

Exceptional: 800+

Very Good: 740-799

Good: 670-739

Fair: 580-669

Poor: Less than 580

Excellent: 781-850

Good: 661-780

Fair: 601-650

Poor: 500-600

Very Poor: 300-499

How scores are calculated

Payment history: 35%

Outstanding debt: 30%

Length of your credit history: 15%

Credit mix: 10%

New credit: 10%

Credit utilization ratio: Extremely influential

Credit mix: Highly influential

Payment history: Moderately influential

Credit age and new inquiries: Less influential

Time to generate score At least six months Less than six months

How do you build credit?

You build credit by demonstrating your ability to use it wisely. There are a few ways you can do this.

Open a credit card

If you have no credit history, or if you have bad credit, then you may not qualify for the best credit cards yet, but there are several beginner credit cards you can use to start building credit. And these cards often don't have annual fees.

Students can often qualify for unsecured cards, whereas secured cards are a good option for non-students with no credit history. Most credit issuers will allow you to upgrade from a secured card to an unsecured card if you use your credit card responsibly for a period of time.

Good first credit cards for beginners comparison

Card Requirements Sign-up bonus Rewards
Bank of America®️ Customized Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students Students $200 cash rewards bonus after spending a $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days 3% cash back in a category of your choice and 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (on up to $2,500 quarterly for these two categories combined); and 1% cash back on all other purchases
Citi® Secured Mastercard® $200 to $2,500 security deposit required, which becomes credit limit None None
Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card $49, $99, or $200 required to open a $200 credit line — or deposit up to $1,000 for a higher limit None None
Chase Freedom Rise℠ A Chase checking account may increase chances of approval None 1.5% cash back on all purchases

Become an authorized user on someone else’s credit card

Another option is to ask a parent or another creditworthy family member or friend to add you as an authorized user on one of their credit cards. This is a big ask, because they’ll be giving you access to their credit line while they’re still legally responsible for paying off the balance (possibly at a high interest rate) if you don’t.

As an authorized user, you’ll get your own credit card to make purchases (assuming the primary cardholder allows it). Come to an agreement with the cardholder about how (or if) you’ll pay them back for the funds you use, and on what schedule.

As long as the primary cardholder doesn’t miss payments or carry a high balance, and as long as the credit issuer reports authorized user activity to the credit bureaus, your credit score will improve as a result of being an authorized user. This method works whether or not you buy anything with the card.

If the primary cardholder does give you a credit card to use, you’ll want to have an agreement with them ahead of time to avoid damaging your personal relationship. Set clear guidelines for how much you’re allowed to spend and how (or if) you’ll repay the primary cardholder.

Use a service such as Experian Boost and Experian Go

If you’re living on your own and regularly making on-time payments to your utility bills, telecommunication services, and streaming subscriptions, then Experian Boost is a free service that can help you get credit for those payments in order to improve your FICO score.

Experian Go is an app that can recommend the best path to creating a credit report, including using Experian Boost. Nearly half (47%) of Experian Boost users without a credit score became scorable after using the service, according to an Experian study. Most received a score in the fair or poor credit range, but 15% received a good credit score or better.

It’s important to understand that this service will only work to your advantage if you’ve been responsible with your bills. If you’ve paid your phone bill late a few times, let your past be your past and find another way to build credit, such as applying for a secured credit card.

What factors affect credit score?

Although different scoring models weigh these factors differently, you can expect the following to have an impact on your credit score:

  • Credit history: Credit scoring companies evaluate how long you’ve had access to credit, along with the average age of your credit accounts. To keep an excellent credit score, avoid closing old accounts.
  • Late payments: If you’ve missed payments or paid late, that’ll result in a negative mark on your credit report and a drop in your credit score. Make sure to always make your payments on time.
  • Credit utilization ratio: This refers to how much of your available credit you’re using. For example, if the total credit limit across all your accounts is $10,000, and you have a $2,000 balance, then your credit utilization rate is 20%. The lower your credit utilization rate, the better your credit score will be.
  • Hard credit inquiries: When you apply for new credit, it results in a hard inquiry on your credit report. Having too many hard inquiries in a short period of time can damage your credit score. Avoid applying for new accounts too close together.

FAQ

How often should you check your credit report?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends checking your credit reports at least once a year to look for errors. It’s also a good idea to check your credit report before applying for a home or car loan, and before applying for a new job, so you know what to expect.

Because checking your credit yourself doesn’t have any impact on your score, you can check it more frequently if you want to monitor your progress. 

What’s a good credit score?

What’s considered a “good” credit score depends on the scoring model used. For FICO scores, (which is the most common scoring model,) a good score is between 670 and 739. For VantageScore, a good score is between 661 and 780.

Some lenders and credit card issuers require you to have a credit score in this range before they’ll extend credit to you. 

Can you see your credit score for free?

Yes, if you sign up for certain services. For example, you can get your free Experian credit report and FICO score directly from Experian. You can view your Equifax and Transunion credit reports, along with your VantageScore, from Credit Karma.

Some credit card issuers, such as Capital One, also offer services that let you check your score for free, whether or not you’re a customer.

Tip
Note that free credit score services typically require you to submit your contact information, and you may be sent credit offers that are relevant to you.

Although everyone can get a free, no-strings credit report from all three main credit bureaus each year from AnnualCreditReport.com, these reports do not come with a credit score. 

Bottom line

Having a good credit score and knowing credit score basics is important for a variety of life’s milestones, from renting an apartment to getting car insurance. A good credit score is also essential to access an affordable mortgage.

Starting out with no credit score can feel frustrating because it makes these life changes difficult. And the fact that you need a credit history in order to access credit is a bit of a Catch-22. But starting with no credit history is an opportunity to establish the financial habits needed to have a good credit score.

Whether you apply for a credit card, become an authorized user, or sign up for Experian Boost, you should become scorable within about six months. Just be sure to make your payments on time and keep your credit utilization ratio low so you can continue to improve your score over time.

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Author Details

Lindsay Frankel Lindsay Frankel is a Denver-based freelance writer who specializes in credit cards, travel, budgeting/saving, and shopping. She has been featured in several finance publications, including LendingTree. When she's not writing, you can find her enjoying the great outdoors, playing music, or cuddling with her rescue pup.

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