Credit Reference Agencies (CRAs): A Complete Guide
Many consumers check their credit reports and scores with various credit-checking companies numerous times a year to keep on top of their finances and before applying for finance deals, like a credit card or loan, but where does all the information and data about you come from?
Credit reference agencies (CRAs) are the ones that hold data on you, and creditors and lenders refer to these agencies to get your information and score so that they can determine your creditworthiness. But very few people understand exactly how these companies work, how they hold our data, where they get it from and which companies use which credit reference agency.
Here, we explain everything you need to know about CRAs, including how many there are in the UK, a list of the main credit reference agencies, and exactly what information they hold.
What is a credit reference agency?
Credit reference agencies (CRAs) are the organisations behind your credit report and score; they gather data about your finances and credit history, such as your accounts, past credit applications, whether payments were met on time and in full etc, and they use this data to compile a credit report and then generate a credit score based on the information recorded within the report.
When you make a credit application (for a mortgage, credit card, personal loan or a mobile phone contract, for example), the lender will use one or more of the available CRAs to determine your creditworthiness and how much of a financial risk you pose to them, before they accept your application.
Not all credit checking websites (Credit.com, Credit Karma, ClearScore, TotallyMoney, etc.) are CRAs; they simply distribute the data and report what they have obtained from the CRAs that they are partnered with.
Read more: How to Apply for a Credit Card
How do CRAs work?
Credit reference agencies receive information from a variety of sources – including government organisations, public records, and credit card companies – regarding an individual’s credit history and their financial behaviour over the last six years, which they then use to generate a credit report.
Once they have enough information to create your credit report, CRAs are able to calculate a credit score based on this data, and then they provide these credit reports and scores to authorised credit checking companies, who, in turn, distribute the data to consumers.
How many credit reference agencies are there in the UK? - Who uses who?
There are 3 to 4 main credit reference agencies in the UK, and they all use different scoring systems to calculate your credit score and produce a report. This is why you’ll probably notice that you don’t get a consistent credit rating or credit score when you try a variety of credit checking websites online, as they often use different CRAs to get the information, but you can check them all in one place with CheckMyFile, which we will explain in more detail later on.
So, what are the main credit reference agencies, which ones are free and who uses who?
Here’s a list of the main CRAs in the UK with a brief breakdown of each one:
- Experian (Since 1996)
- Equifax (Since 1899)
- TransUnion (Since 1968)
- Crediva (This was founded in 2007, so it hasn't been around as long as the 3 main CRAs above, but many companies are now using this CRA as an additional way of checking someone's credit file)
Generally, you can check your credit report and score for free with the main credit reference agencies as they are legally entitled to provide a statutory report to consumers (as per GDPR rules), but to receive extra services, such as tips on improving your credit score, a more detailed report or you want to see more information that's held on you, you may have to pay a fee after the free trial period – so bear this in mind when signing up to them.
Experian is one of the most well-known credit reference agencies in the UK, and you are able to see your credit score for free. However, in order to access your Experian credit report, you must pay a £14.99 per month subscription fee after a 30-day free trial.
Which sites use Experian?
In addition to Checkmyfile, Moneysavingexpert’s (MSE) Credit Club uses Experian as its credit reference agency to give people access to their credit score, and more, for free.
Credit.com also provides a free service for users to check their credit score and get a report card with some in-depth information for free. This website says that your Experian credit score will get updated every 14 days.
Experian credit score range
Each CRA has its own scoring system and credit rating brackets, which is why your score can differ depending on who you check it with.
Here’s Experian’s credit score range:
- Very poor: 0 - 560
- Poor: 561 - 720
- Fair: 721 - 880
- Good: 881 - 960
- Excellent: 961 - 999
As you can see, Experian’s credit score is rated out of a maximum 999 and anything above 881 is considered a good credit score.
With a good score, you’re more likely to be accepted for the best deals with low APRs (interest rates), but a score that falls into the poor or very poor categories will result in you being offered more expensive deals with higher interest – in many cases, lenders will completely reject an applicant with a low score because they seem them as too much of a financial risk.
If you’d like more information or are interested in using Experian’s services, take a look at our full Experian review.
It costs £7.95 a month (after a 30-day free trial) to receive your Equifax credit report and score directly, but if you are happy to sacrifice some detail, you can use ClearScore or CreditWise to view your Equifax credit data for free.
Checkmyfile can also show you the data held on you by Equifax, as well as Experian, TransUnion and Crediva in your credit report.
Here is Equifax's credit score range:
- Very poor: 0 - 279
- Poor: 280 - 379
- Fair: 380 - 419
- Good: 420 - 465
- Excellent: 466 - 700
Equifax’s maximum score is 700, less than both Experian and TransUnion (see below), and anything above 420 is considered a good credit score.
Our Equifax review tells you everything you need to know about the CRA, so be sure to take a look before you sign up to its credit reporting services or any of the credit checking websites that use its data.
It’s a popular choice of CRA among the free credit checking websites, which means you’re able to view most of your TransUnion data at no cost at all.
Here’s TransUnion’s credit score range:
- Very Poor: 0 - 550
- Poor: 561 - 565
- Fair: 566 - 603
- Good: 604 - 627
- Excellent: 628 - 710
Despite having a somewhat similar maximum credit score as Equifax, their category ranges vary considerably, as a good credit score is considered anything above 604 with TransUnion, whereas Equifax note that a score of 420 and above is good.
Checkmyfile and Crediva
Checkmyfile, as aforementioned, is a credit checking website and not a CRA, but it holds data from all the main CRAs in the UK, including Crediva.
As it is able to present you with an overall credit score based on data and information from Equifax, Experian, TransUnion and Crediva (a lower-scale CRA), Checkmyfile saves you a considerable amount of time and effort, as you don't have to sign up to each CRA service individually.
Signing up to Checkmyfile is certainly worth doing, even if you just use the 30-day free trial, as it’s so important to keep track of your credit profile to keep on top of your finances.
You also get a fuller and more detailed credit report as the site uses all four CRAs rather than just the one, and this allows you to see what data each CRA holds on you and identify any mistakes on your own report which may be bringing your score down. This way, you can rectify any errors.
If your score needs work, Checkmyfile also offers various services to help you stay informed and know what your next step should be.
Statutory credit report: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion
By law, credit reference agencies Experian, Equifax and TransUnion must provide you with a statutory copy of their credit report if you request it.
A statutory credit report is a one-off snapshot of your credit report at the time you receive it, and it provides you with sufficient details of the information held on you by the CRA.
You can request to receive your statutory credit report online or via paper copy, and it costs just £2 every time.
If you want a more detailed report, however, you will be better off signing up to Checkmyfile or another website that offers a more extensive report.
Do CRAs decide whether or not you get accepted for credit?
No. When you apply for credit, whether that’s a loan, mortgage or credit card, it is the lender that decides whether or not they will give you credit or not – the credit reference agencies do not make that decision, they are merely there to provide the lender with data and information about you, so they can assess your level of risk and make an informed decision.
How do credit reference agencies get their information?
CRAs get their information and data from public bodies and government organisations (including the electoral roll), as well as credit companies – including credit card and mortgage providers.
Only authorised and regulated CRAs are legally allowed to receive such information, and they can only pass it on to companies and credit checking websites that are also authorised and regulated.
What information do credit reference agencies hold?
When you receive your credit report, regardless of which credit reference agency it’s from, you should expect to see the following:
- Generic personal information
- A list of your personal accounts and financial associates
- Your current account provider
- Public record information and electoral roll data
- Any court judgements against you
- Searches carried out on you (both hard and soft)
- Any suspected cases of fraud
Why are credit scores different between agencies?
If you try a few different credit-checking websites like Checkmyfile, or you use each CRA directly, you may notice that your credit score differs between them all – there are a few reasons for this.
As seen above, each CRA’s maximum score varies, and they use different ranges to categorise credit scores from ‘very poor’ to ‘excellent’.
Also, there’s the issue that not all lenders report to every CRA – some report to all three, while others report to just one or two, which causes an inconsistency in terms of the data held by each agency.
It’s therefore possible that you could have a bad credit score according to Experian, and a good credit score from both Equifax and TransUnion. This is nothing to stress over, as lenders will often check your credit history with at least two or three CRAs to judge your overall creditworthiness.
Checking your score – Why it's important
This is because some applications will require the lender to carry out a hard check on your report, which can damage your score if you end up getting rejected.
It is also worth remembering that any mistakes can be amended if you address them, so you’ll need to keep an eye on your score and report in case anything crops, as anything untoward will prevent you getting the best deals.
To get the most accurate credit score, you should ensure that all the data held on you is correct by checking your credit report regularly and thoroughly. If you notice any mistakes, these can be amended by disputing the data through the CRA.
Stay on top of your finances and check your score today with a free 30-day trial: