Ah, the dreaded credit score conversation. Despite its importance, it can be a scary topic to approach. How can our entire financial history be deduced to just one number?
Intimidating as it may be, it’s important to take ownership of your credit score in order to protect your identity and plan for big purchases. In this article, we’ll explain the role these infamous three digits play in your financial life as well as how you can check your credit score in Canada.
What is a credit score?
A credit score is a three-digit number assigned to you by a credit bureau that reflects your creditworthiness, or how likely you are to repay debt. It’s calculated using an array of factors including the length of time you’ve been borrowing money, the types of debt that you have, and your credit utilization rate, which is the amount of debt you owe versus the amount of available credit you have.
There are two reporting credit bureaus in Canada: Equifax and TransUnion.
The way each bureau calculates credit scores is similar, but they do assign a different weight to each factor, which could result in differing scores. Some Canadians prefer to track both their Equifax and TransUnion scores to maintain a well-balanced image of their economic situation.
Although the terms credit score and credit report are often used interchangeably, it’s important to realize that they’re not the same thing. While your credit score is a number that represents your lend-ability, your credit report is a complete overview of your credit history that includes specific information about your loans and other accounts, as well as your payment history. This includes any amount owed on a loan, whether it’s revolving credit (like a credit card) or non-revolving credit (like a student loan).
Why should you check your credit score?
As mentioned above, your credit score is often a significant factor in a lender’s decision-making process. Some of the parties that will perform credit checks on you include landlords, car dealerships, cell phone carriers, and creditors of any kind. But did you know that the most important person who should be checking your credit score is you?
Not only does keeping track of your credit score help ensure that you haven’t been the recent victim of identity theft, but it also helps paint an accurate picture of your financial situation. This serves as a foundation for all of your money decisions.
If your credit rating isn’t where you want it to be, then being aware of your credit score is the first step to improving it. While many factors go into calculating a credit score, knowing yours will help inform where your financial efforts should be going — i.e., whether you should be focused on decreasing your utilization rate, opening new accounts, or paying down debt.
Paid vs. free credit scores
It used to be that, to check your Canadian credit score, you’d have to request a physical mailed copy from one of the credit bureaus. Fortunately, there are now several digital tools you can use to check your score for free.
Free credit reports should be sufficient to serve the needs of most people. However, it’s important to note that some free credit score monitoring tools may make money by selling your personal information to advertisers, or by recommending products to you and then taking a cut. If you’re not comfortable with this arrangement, you can opt to pay for your credit score directly from the bureaus. You’re entitled to check your credit score for free once a year, but you’ll have to pay if you want to see it on demand.
Important note: as of 2021, Quebec passed legislation requiring both credit bureaus to provide consumers with free credit checks. At the time of writing, residents of Quebec can access their credit score from either Equifax or TransUnion for free.
What is a good credit score?
Credit scores range from 300 to 900, with 300 being the lowest and 900 being the highest. You don’t need to score a perfect 900 to have a good credit score, though. In fact, 900 is pretty impossible to obtain. A good credit score is generally considered anything above 660, with a score above 725 being considered very good and, above 760 considered excellent.
To paint a broader picture, here is an overview of the five categories of credit scores:
- Very poor: 300-559
- Poor: 560-659
- Average: 660-724
- Good: 725-759
- Excellent: 760+
How to check your credit score for free
Here are the many apps and services you can use to check credit scores in Canada.
Borrowell was the first third-party company in Canada to offer free credit reports. It pulls its report from Equifax and refreshes it automatically for customers on a weekly basis. Borrowell’s other offerings include an AI-empowered credit coach that makes recommendations for ways that customers can improve their scores, and Rent Advantage™ — a reporting feature that enables renters to report their rent payments to Equifax for a fee of $8/month. All Borrowell customers also get access to personalized recommendations based on their credit profile.
- Fees Free
- Additional Features Credit Cards, Loans, Product Recommendations for Users
- Provinces Available All but Saskatchewan, Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories
While no stranger to the United States, CreditKarma is a newcomer on the Canadian scene. It offers Canadians free access to their TransUnion credit score, a rarity in the country. While its offerings are pretty scant at the moment, there is a chance that it could expand in the near future.
- Fees Free
- Additional Features Mortgage and Loan Marketplace, Tips to Improve Credit
- Provinces Available All but QC, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut
Mogo is a Vancouver-based fin-tech company that offers free credit score monitoring as part of its prepaid Visa card (the MogoCard). Like Borrowell, Mogo pulls its scores from Equifax. To see how Mogo stacks up compared to competitors we’ve compared it to both Borrowell and CreditKarma.
- Fees Free for 90 days
- Additional Features MogoCard, Identity Fraud Protection, MogoCrypto
- Provinces Available All but QC
Some banks, such as RBC, will allow you to see your credit score in real time through your online banking platform. This is a convenient option for money-savvy Canadians who like to keep only a skeleton crew of apps on their phone.
Directly from the credit bureau
In some cases, you can get your credit score for free directly from a credit bureau, like Equifax. By law, every resident of Quebec is entitled to free access to their credit score. The rest of Canada has limited access to their credit scores directly through Equifax or TransUnion — for credit monitoring, you’ll have to pay.
How to get a paid credit score
If you would like to see your credit score instantly and directly from the bureau, you’ll have to pay in certain cases. You can either check your credit score online, in the mail, over the telephone, or in person. You are not required to share your Social Insurance Number (SIN) but in some cases, it may help with accuracy and can help you get your credit score faster.
How often are credit scores updated?
Your credit score is updated whenever lenders report information to the credit bureaus. Generally, this is about once a month, but it can happen more frequently than this, which is why some monitoring services offer weekly updates.
Will credit checks affect my credit score?
This depends on whether it’s a hard check or a soft check. Checking your own credit score using one of the apps listed above or through Equifax and TransUnion is generally considered a soft check and therefore will not affect your credit. However, if you make a major credit application such as for a loan or major purchase like a credit card, a line of credit, a home, or a vehicle, generally will affect your score, at least for a short period of time thereafter.
The reason for this? Performing too many hard credit checks in a short timeframe may send the lenders the message that you’re short on cash or planning to dig yourself into some serious debt and, as a result, may negatively affect your credit score.
The bottom line
Nobody likes to be thought of as just a number. The truth is: your credit score can act as indicator of how far you have to go in reaching your financial goals, but if you aren’t where you want to be, don’t worry. There are a lot of ways you can improve your credit score; downloading one of the free apps mentioned above is a great place to start.
Frequently asked questions
There are several good ways to check your credit score in Canada. For residents of Quebec, it’s free to check your score directly with one of the two credit bureaus (TransUnion or Equifax) at any time. For everyone else, you have access to a limited number of free checks through the bureaus. However, you always have the choice of paying for an instant check through the credit bureaus themselves or relying on a free app like Borrowell and CreditKarma, or free websites like Loans Canada’s Compare Hub.
Yes. Contrary to popular belief, there is no limit to the number of times that you can check your credit score. Although hard inquiries on your credit report have the potential to lower your score, checking your personal credit score is considered a soft inquiry and as a result, will not have any effect on your score. Most credit bureaus get account updates from lenders on at least a monthly basis, so it might be worth your while to get credit score updates as frequently as every week.
Although credit score and credit report are terms that are often used interchangeably, they’re not the same thing. While credit score refers to three digits that represent the risk you pose as a borrower, a credit report paints a more thorough picture of your financial life with a breakdown of all of your credit history. It contains a breakdown of your payment history, any open or closed credit cards and loans, as well as all of your personal information like your address, previous address, employers, previous employers, telephone number, and so on.