Bust myths & improve your score
Everyone should take time to manage and boost their credit score. It's no longer just about whether you can get mortgages, credit cards and loans, it can also affect mobile phone contracts, monthly car insurance, bank accounts and more. Here's what you need to know about credit checks and how to boost your credit score.
Credit scores & coronavirus
In light of the current coronavirus pandemic, some of the information in this guide may no longer be up to date, but we are working to update it.
In the meantime, if you've chosen to take a payment holiday on your mortgage the three major credit reference agencies – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion have confirmed that your credit scores WILL be protected.
Please see our guide on Coronavirus – Finance & Bills Help for the latest info on how the coronavirus may impact your credit file.
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What is a credit rating?
In a nutshell, a credit rating is an indication of how a typical lender would assess you.
When you apply for credit, each lender tries to predict your future behaviour based on the way you've acted in the past. To do it, they look at lots of different data. This may include how many applications you've made recently, how much you owe, what credit products you've had and whether you paid them all off on time.
But the world of credit ratings is rife with misinformation and misunderstanding. Much of it's because lenders don't want it understood, and credit reference agencies want you to think it works a certain way so they can sell you extra products based on your fear.
10 things you need to know
You DON'T have a uniform credit rating
There's no such thing as a credit blacklist. This is a myth. In the UK, there's no uniform credit rating or score, and there's no blacklist of banned people.
Each lender scores you differently and secretly.
This means just because one lender has rejected you, it doesn't automatically mean others will. Though after a rejection, it's always important to check your credit file for errors before applying again.
Of course, if you've got a poor credit history, or had problems, it can feel like you're blacklisted. Credit scoring is intuitive – would you lend to someone with a history of not repaying? However, on occasion there are firms that specialise in lending to those who have had past problems – though they then charge a whacking rate.
The tools that lenders use to decide aren't universal either. As well as your credit file, they also look at application information and any past dealings they've had with you, and use the three sources of information to build up a picture of you.
Credit scoring is about predicting future behaviour
This isn't easy if you haven't got much credit history. When you apply for a product, a 'credit check' is done. In practice, this means lenders put all the data they have on you into a complicated algorithm. It's an attempt to predict your future behaviour based on what you've done in the past.
While a poor history counts against you, so does having little credit history as it makes predictions less certain.
Imagine you are lending someone money. On the surface, they may appear trustworthy. But if you don't have much info about them, then you'd want to know more, just to be sure.
That's why one of the key challenges for some is to build a credit history – it's not easy if no one will give you credit. If you're in that situation, you can find help on how to build your credit history – it's aimed at students and the young, but the theory applies to everyone.
It's as much about 'will you make the lender money' as it is about risk
Many people write to us incensed after rejection – "I've a perfect credit score, I've never missed a payment, why on earth did they reject me?"
This is based on a misunderstanding – lenders are credit-scoring to see if you match up to their wishlist of what makes a profitable customer.
Of course, someone who is a bad risk is likely to be scored out as unprofitable by most companies. But the risk of not repaying isn't the be-all and end-all.
You might feel like a dream punter, but for credit card companies you're a nightmare. If they spot this trend, you could be rejected. The most profitable customers are those perpetually in debt, never defaulting, but always meeting the minimum repayment.
Pay off in full every month, don't use your cards enough, or always shift debt to 0% cards, and if they can spot you (it isn't always that easy), a few may reject you.
DON'T use this as an excuse not to pay off your credit card in full, especially if you don't have a 0% card (though you really should). For more info, see our Best Balance Transfer Credit Cards guide.
Imagine a bank wants new mortgage customers. That's a costly sell. Instead, it offers a current account paying a high rate of interest on a small amount kept in it. Yet when you apply, rather than scoring you as a bank account customer, it could actually be scoring to see if you're likely to be a profitable mortgage borrower in the future – you might face rejection if you aren't.
The secretive nature of credit scoring makes this difficult to ever truly know.
What lenders really know about you
It's important to be aware of exactly what lenders know when you apply, so you can present yourself in the best light. Importantly, it's more than just what's on your credit file.
The application form
In many ways this is the most important part. Here, lenders obtain the key details: your postcode, salary, family size, reason for the loan and whether you're a home owner.
Make sure you fill in the forms carefully. One slight slip, such as a "£2,000" salary rather than a "£20,000" one, can kibosh any application.
Be consistent too, fraud-scoring firms filter applications and if there are many inconsistencies – such as changing your job title or different phone numbers, it can cause a problem that you may not be told about.
Past dealings you've had with the lender
Companies use any data on previous dealings they've had with you to feed into the credit score. This means those with limited credit history may find their own bank more likely to lend to them than others.
Of course, those who've had problems with a lender in the past may find it more difficult to get accepted there too.
Equifax, Experian and TransUnion (previously Callcredit) credit files
The three UK credit reference agencies compile information, allowing them to send data on any UK individual to prospective lenders. All lenders use at least one agency. This data comes from four main sources:
This is publicly available and contains address and residence details.
County court judgments (CCJs), decrees, IVAs, bankruptcies and other court debt orders indicate if you have a history of debt problems.
This includes records of other lenders that have searched your file when you've applied for credit, addresses you're linked to, or other people you have a financial association with.
The big gas and electricity firms do hard credit checks – these go on your file too.
Banks, building societies, utility companies and other organisations use credit reference agencies to share details of all your account behaviour on credit/store cards, loans, mortgages, bank accounts, energy and mobile phone contracts from the last six years.
About 350 million records a month are tracked. The first type of information and the most common is 'default data', which shows where you're officially in default.
Some lenders share 'full data' too. This can incorporate how you generally operate the account, from being the model customer to defaulting. Some credit card providers share the amount you repay too (if it's the minimum, or if you repay in full) and whether you've a promotional deal (plus if you use credit card cash advances). This can allow lenders to weed out those just playing the system.
In addition, payday loan data is now normally reported, while doorstep lenders are legally obliged to share the data that they hold on you.
Some history from energy/phone providers
If you look to switch energy provider, or change from a prepayment meter to a normal credit meter (where you get a bill), it's likely to leave a footprint as many providers now share credit report data. See the Cheap Energy Club for help.
If you've committed fraud (or someone has stolen your identity and committed fraud), this will be held on your file under the CIFAS section.
What lenders don't know – ignore conspiracy theories
Many people believe every element of their life is on their credit reference files, but actually it's mainly just a strict set of financial data. Though over recent years, the information contained on them has grown.
So let's debunk some myths. Here are a few of the more common things people think are on their files, but aren't.
Some lenders (and MSE's eligibility calculator) will do a soft search of your credit report, to tell you both whether you qualify to borrow from them, and what rate they are willing to give you. This isn't passed on to other lenders when they credit-check you.
However, when you check, it does appear on your credit file. It's not always clear, but the words "administration check" or "quotation search" should indicate something that lenders can't see.
The three credit reference agencies, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax, have individual ways of scoring you, meaning the numbers you see may be different for each one.
Interestingly, lenders don't see this score at all - it's just for you. The score you see reflects what's actually in your file, which is what lenders will look through when you apply for a credit product.
Unless you've had a county court judgment against you for lack of payment, no information about 'income contingent' student loans – the type all those who started university since 1998 have – is passed on to the credit reference agencies by the Student Loans Company (see Should I Repay My Student Loan? for a full briefing).
Those who started university before 1998 and have the old style 'mortgage' type student loans have defaults recorded as well as CCJs. And deferrals on these loans are now reported to credit reference agencies, to many people's angst. See Martin's blog: Why the Government has sold people out over Erudio student loans.
Councils don't share data about your payments, whether good or bad. If you're in arrears, it won't affect your credit score. However, it's always wise to prioritise your council tax payments as many councils are quick to prosecute. Council tax arrears are dealt with as a criminal matter, not a civil one, so you could end up with a criminal conviction.
Any fines you've incurred, for example, parking or driving fines. Even though they're issued by the courts, they aren't 'credit' issues, so they're not listed.
Provided you don't have any joint financial products and are therefore financially linked, there's no information about members of your family who live, or have lived, with you or any other third parties.
Lenders can only see whether you've applied for credit elsewhere, not whether you've been accepted or declined. However, they may be able to guess by examining the credit accounts you have open and when they were opened.
Defaults or missed payments will usually stay on your report for six years. If you close an account, the missed payments could stay on the account for six years after the closure, so keep that in mind. Bankruptcy is wiped six years from the date you're declared bankrupt, provided it's been discharged.
If you've attempted to, or have successfully reclaimed PPI or bank charges, it won't appear on your credit files. If you've had bank charges, the penalties will show on your records.
While this info is held, and appears when you check your file, it isn't passed on to lenders and so doesn't play any role in any assessment of you.
None of these personal details about you are held.
How much you earn isn't on your file either, though you'll usually be asked on the application form.
As savings are not a credit product, they don't appear on credit files. This data is therefore only available to banks you hold savings accounts with.
However, when you apply for a savings account, the provider might do a soft search of your credit report to check your ID, and do anti-money laundering checks.
Medical problems you may have had in the past aren't listed.
No criminal convictions are listed.
Information from the Child Support Agency is excluded.
Remember: If a lender asks you about something on its application form then it can find out about it – and lying is fraud.
Your credit report dictates the product and rate you'll get
In the past 10 years the credit landscape has almost completely shifted towards 'rate for risk'. This means almost every credit provider on the market uses your credit file to not only dictate whether they'll provide you with credit, but also what interest rate you'll get.
The most obvious way this manifests itself is in representative rates on loans.
Here, only a minimum of 51% of accepted customers must get the rate advertised. They might be advertising a 6% rate (known as the representative APR). But you could be accepted and offered a 40% interest rate instead, because of a poor credit score.
It applies to other products too. Some 0% credit cards give you a shorter 0% period if you've got a poor credit history (assuming they'll accept you), others will simply offer you a different product to the one you've applied for. This is why it's so important to manage your creditworthiness.
'I am not a number, I'm a free man!' – Er, not with credit scoring
We don't have a right to be lent money. While the Government pushes lenders to offer more credit, especially in the small business and mortgage worlds, ultimately it's still a commercial decision from firms about whether they want to lend.
This is done with a massive system of automated impersonal credit checks. It's often far cheaper for a lender to reject some people who it should be lending to than it is to accept some it shouldn't be lending to.
You may feel it's unjust, but The Prisoner's call – "I am not a number, I am a free man" – doesn't work in credit scoring. Here you are just a number, and you have to understand that, as frustrating as it may seem.
Fraud scoring as well as credit scoring can cause rejection
When you apply for a product, it isn't just a case of assessing whether you're desirable, but also checking the application is legitimate. So, as well as the credit reference agencies, lenders also use completely separate anti-fraud agencies to try to weed out problems. The two big ones work in very different ways.
This rarely mentioned system is much less factual, and so is prone to greater errors. However, it's used by almost all major banks and building societies, receiving 96,000 applications a day, and has a real impact.
It works by looking for inconsistencies between your current application form and any past applications you've made, trying to spot factual errors. While it can't block your application itself, it triggers a red warning flag to lenders, and this happens roughly 7% of the time. Lenders can then check the info, and either ignore it, or do further checks. They're not allowed to reject you based on the National Hunter red flag alone.
Things such as a number of applications in a few days can also trigger warnings, though generally that's more acceptable with mortgages, where it's more common, than with credit cards.
What to watch for
It's crucial to be consistent, even over long periods, when you fill in application forms. If you have a number of job titles or phone numbers, try to use the same one on every application. Changes to guidance introduced in 2009 mean lenders are supposed to tell you if National Hunter has been a contributing reason for your rejection.
How to check your National Hunter file
To check the info it holds on you, you'll need to make a subject access request, which is free thanks to the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018. This can also be a useful thing to do if you think you're a victim of ID fraud.
What you'll get is effectively a list of the information you've put on past applications. If there's an error on the file, which is possible, you can't correct it directly with National Hunter. If this happens, you'll need to go back to the lender that submitted that application in the first place to have it corrected.
CIFAS: Lists confirmed past fraud
It is simply a record of known fraud, so if you're on there, in general, you should know about it. It's also the organisation to speak to if you think you've been a victim of ID fraud. Worryingly, any fraud committed at your address in the past could appear on your CIFAS file, even if it was nothing to do with you.
As with National Hunter, a lender can't refuse your application based on the CIFAS data, but must investigate first. Hopefully, that should prove you were not the perpetrator.
How to check your CIFAS file
The info it holds on you should be contained on your credit report under the CIFAS section. You can do a subject access request for information CIFAS holds on you (which is hopefully nothing) for free. Find out how to do this on the CIFAS website.
If you've a dispute with the information it holds, you need to contact the company that logged the information on your CIFAS file first. If you're not happy with the response, you can ask CIFAS to investigate after you've received a final response letter.
Credit reference companies will try to sell you a credit score
Don't take it too seriously: your credit reference agency credit file is important, but its credit score isn't.
Credit reference agencies used to make all their money from selling data to lenders. The idea was to help lenders predict your behaviour, which allowed them to assess whether or not you were a good person to lend to.
Then some bright spark at the credit reference agencies realised they could generate a business called "consumer credit management". It meant they could start to sell you all the other sorts of data and monitoring products for the first time. Why do they sell it to you? Well, it makes them money.
Part of this is selling people a "credit score". Yet that isn't a true indication because, as we've stressed, each lender scores you differently and they have far more information than just what's on your credit report.
As explained above, you shouldn't attach too much importance to your credit score – it's your credit file and what's contained within it that is important.
However, for those looking at their 'score', it's helpful to understand that each of the credit reference agencies has a different scoring range. These are as follows:
- Experian: 0-999.
- Equifax: 0-700.
- TransUnion (formerly Callcredit): 0-710.
In each case, 0 is the lowest score, with 999, 700 and 710 being the highest scores respectively.
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Credit scoring affects far more than you think
Since the credit crunch started, way back in 2007, the importance of credit scoring to our financial lives has grown rapidly. Here's a quick rundown of how credit scoring affects major financial areas.
If your credit score is poor, you'll be rejected. It really is that simple. If you're planning to get a new mortgage or remortgage, it's worth starting to manage your credit file at least a year in advance. For specialist help, read the free MSE First-Time Buyers' Mortgage Booklet or Remortgage Help Booklet.
Again, your credit score matters both for acceptance and the rate you'll pay. See Cheap Loans for help.
- Utility bills
Sharing data is now spreading to utility companies too, making it even more important to pay your bill on time, or it could harm your chances of applying for other credit such as a loan, credit card or mortgage. Of course, paying it on time can help your chances too.
The credit agencies are notoriously secret about which firms share data on whether their customers made or missed payments.
If full payment information is shared it will include:
- When you pay on time
- When you don't pay on time
- Defaults (when you didn't pay what you should have done)
- How much you paid
- Information about payment arrangements (eg, if you pay by direct debit)
- Deceased accounts (accounts of someone who has died/gone away)
- Sometimes, debt within bankruptcy agreement notifications
Sometimes companies will only share details of missed payments and defaults on account.
As long as you pay on time, there will be no negative impact on your credit reference file if the company only shares missed payment data.
However, if the company shares full payment data then paying on time could have a positive impact on your credit reference file.
- Mobile phones
If you're getting a contract mobile phone, you're credit-scored (usually because the company is spreading the cost of the handset over the contract, so for the firm, it's effectively a loan). If you're rejected, you won't get a contract, and will have to stick with pay as you go.
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27 tips to boost your credit rating
Each lender scores you differently, so this is more art than science, especially because lenders are tight-lipped about what they're looking for.
Yet there are practical things you can do that should help reduce credit-scoring and fraud-scoring rejection.
The MSE Credit Club – which includes Experian Credit Report
You can get your full Experian Credit Report for FREE through Credit Club. See our full details on how this will work.
You'll get a free Experian Credit Score. This will give you an indicator of how lenders see you when assessing you for credit applications.
Our unique affordability score. This clever tool will help you work out how much you can afford to borrow, using calculations based on your income and estimated spending.
Our unique Credit Hit Rate – this will show you your chances of success, expressed as a percentage, of grabbing our top cards and loans.
Eligibility tool to show your best credit deals. It reveals the likelihood of you getting top credit cards or loans.
Wallet workout tool to check if you’re on the best credit products for YOU.
Your credit profile explained. It shows the key factors affecting your score and how to improve them.
Boosting your credit score is a bit like going on the pull
You need to make yourself as attractive as possible to lenders, in the hope you'll fit their bespoke lending criteria.
Jane Bank & Sarah Lender are on the pull. Neither likes overweight men, and both like dark hair and good looks. Yet while Jane prefers intense guys with stubble, Sarah likes 'em clean-shaven with a sense of humour. So while there are lots of guys they both reject, and some they both lust after, they can still end up fancying different blokes.
Credit scoring's the same. Different lenders want different things, so one rejection may not mean a rejection by all.
Some borrowers are unattractive to almost all lenders (ie, most will turn down bad risks). However, a small few may have a fetish for those with poor credit histories as they can charge more.
And sadly for those rejected, just as when the guys ask Sarah or Jane why they're not interested, they just say: "'Cos I don't fancy you," and that's about it. We don't always get to know other than: "Your credit score wasn't high enough."
The tips below are to make sure that lenders see you in the best possible light. So that when they're looking at you, you're always dressed up to the nines, looking as hot as you can, and your skirt/shirt isn't tucked into your pants without you knowing.
Check your credit report annually or before any major application
Your credit reference reports, held at Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, contain enormous amounts of data on you. Errors happen and can kill applications, so it's important to check them regularly and to go through line by line to check nothing's wrong.
If possible, check your report at all three agencies (or at least the biggest two, Experian and Equifax) as different lenders use different agencies – and don't assume the info will be identical on each.
Following the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018, it's now always free to check your credit report. See our full Check Credit Files For Free guide, which also includes info on what to check.
Register to vote or it's much harder to get credit
If you're not on the electoral roll, it's much harder to get accepted for credit, so sign up immediately. Don't wait for the annual reminder or for the elections to roll around, apply at any time on Gov.uk.
Simply follow the instructions online – it'll ask you a series of questions aimed at identifying you, and the local electoral borough you need to register with. Note that you'll need your national insurance number to hand.
Many worry some councils sell on the data. But you can opt out of the open electoral register which can be used for marketing.
Credit reference agencies are allowed to use the full register which you can't opt out of and that you should, by law, be on. The electoral roll can be a factor in scoring, but even where it isn't, not being on it can lead to delays as lenders also use it to check your address and ID.
It's worth noting the credit scores sold to you by credit reference agencies may show you've a perfect score without being on the electoral roll. Don't let that fool you into thinking not being registered won't affect your ability to get credit. It will, because lenders also need to be sure you are who you say you are.
Not eligible to vote in the UK? Add proof of residency
If you aren't eligible to vote in the UK so can't be on the electoral roll (mainly non-Commonwealth and non-EU foreign nationals), send all three credit reference agencies proof of residency (utility bills, a UK driving licence, etc) and ask them to add a note to verify this. This should help you get credit.
Some foreign nationals (from Republic of Ireland, some Commonwealth countries and EU citizens) are allowed to vote in local elections, and therefore can be registered on the electoral roll in the normal way.
Never miss or be late on any credit repayments – it can have a disproportionate impact
Sounds obvious? Well, it is. Even if you're struggling, try not to default or miss payments because it can have a disproportionate impact. Doing this once or twice could cause problems that can cost you for years. Defaults in the previous 12 months will hurt you the most.
The easy solution is to pay everything by direct debit, then you'll never miss or be late. While we normally caution against only making minimum repayments on debts (as the faster you repay, the less the total interest – see the Danger: Minimum Repayments guide) one technique is to set up a direct debit to just repay the minimum, purely as a vehicle to ensure you're never late. Then manually pay more each month on top.
If you are in difficulties, the cliché "contact your lender" is a good one. Hopefully it will try to help. Changing your repayment schedule is preferable to you defaulting – and though it will hit your credit score, it's better than a county court judgment or decree against you.
It's not usually whether you kiss, hold hands, live together or even being married that links your finances, it's simply whether you have a joint financial product.
If you are financially linked to someone on any product, that means their files can be accessed and looked at as part of assessing whether to accept you. Even just a joint bills account with flatmates can mean you are co-scored.
Therefore if your partner/flatmate has a poor history, keep your finances rigidly separate, and it should maintain access to good credit for you.
There are currently only four products that can infer financial linking – a joint mortgage, a joint loan, a joint bank account (not savings as they don't go on credit files), and in certain circumstances, your utility bills. Being jointly named on a bill with a flatmate shouldn't mean you are financially linked – this should only happen when the energy firm is confident you're a couple (eg, when your bills are addressed "Mr and Mrs").
It's worth noting that while many people think they have a "joint" credit card, these technically don't exist. It's one person's account, the other just has a second card to access it.
If you've split up, ensure you financially de-link too
If you split up with someone you've had joint finances with (or just moved out from your flat-share), once your finances are no longer linked, write to the credit reference agencies and ask for a notice of disassociation. You can also call up or find the forms online.
This will stop their credit history affecting yours in the future. However, the agencies say they can't do this if you still have a joint account open with the ex. The account'll need to be closed or transferred to an individual account before you can do it. For example, a joint loan would have to be paid off before a notice be given.
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Minimise credit applications by using our free eligibility calculators
The only way to know if you'll get accepted for a product is to apply. Yet that leaves a footprint on your credit file, and too many of those, especially in a short space of time, can hurt future applications. This is a catch-22, as if you get rejected, or the rate you're offered is rubbish, you'll want to keep applying.
Martin's given evidence to parliamentary select committees on this unfairness, but little's been done. So to fight back, we've built free eligibility calculators to help you.
These use a soft search (so you see it on your file, but lenders don't so there's no impact) to show your odds of acceptance for the top cards (and loans), so you can hone and minimise your applications.
- Best balance transfer cards eligibility calculator
- 0% spending cards eligibility calculator
- Cashback cards eligibility calculator
- Airline cards eligibility calculator
- Cheap overseas spending cards eligibility calculator
- Credit rebuild cards eligibility calculator
- Money transfer cards eligibility calculator
- Balance transfer & spending cards eligibility calculator
We also have a loans eligibility calculator, which'll help you find your chances of getting different loans...
You only need to fill in your details once using the eligibility calculator to find your chances for all cards from the card category you click on. The loans eligibility calculator is separate, so if you're looking for both cards and loans, you'll need to use both calculators separately.
What are good odds?
Anything above 70% means you've a very strong chance of getting the card. Anything above 50% is also pretty reasonable. Anything below, and you're taking a chance.
Check addresses on old accounts
This may sound bizarre, but a wrong address can have a disproportionate impact. If you had, for example, an old mobile phone contract or credit card that you don't use any more, but is technically still listed as active on your credit reference files, then check the address is your current one.
If the account is still listed as open, and it lists you as being at a different address, this can stymie applications due to ID checks. Check your file and go through every active account's address to ensure it's up to date.
We've known people being rejected for mortgages because of this. Worse still, they didn't know the exact reason why as that's a nightmare to find out.
Don't 'spend' your applications too often
Every time you apply for a credit product (be it a credit card, contract mobile phone, car insurance paid monthly or more), it adds a footprint to your file for a year.
Too many, especially in a short space of time, can trigger rejections as it makes it look like you're desperate for credit. Therefore, space out applications if you can and don't do them frivolously.
In fact it's almost worth thinking about applications as 'spending'. Is it really worth spending an application on what you're doing, or could you save it for something else?
So if you fancy a cashback credit card and have no other credit you need to apply for in the next six months or so, great, spend your application. But if you're just about to apply for a mortgage, wait until after you've done that. Prioritising is important.
For the same reason, if you apply for a cheap credit card and don't get the credit limit you need, don't automatically apply for another one. Read the Low Credit Limit guide for more information.
Always check your credit files after rejection
There's a nightmare scenario you need to avoid called the rejection spiral. It works like this:
This continues, until finally you check your
files and get the error corrected.
You apply again. You're rejected, not due to the error, but because of recent 'searches'.
If you're rejected once, check your files are correct immediately. Otherwise you may mess up your score for an age, as more applications mean more searches, compounding the problem. You'll be told by the lender which credit reference agency it used to assess your info, so focus on that one.
After an error, it's possible to get successive searches wiped, but it involves negotiating both with the agency and the lender, and it isn't easy.
The rejection spiral also applies when you apply for credit normally reserved for those with an excellent score when you, say, only have a good score (sadly, many lenders don't publish their criteria so it's difficult to know in advance).
If you're thinking of applying for a new card, check our best buy credit card guides. Our eligibility calculator gives an indication of which loans and cards are likely to accept you, plus those likely to turn you down.
Use a credit (re)build card to build a history & restore past issues
Credit scoring is all about trying to predict your future behaviour based on your past history. Those with a poor history do poorly; but so do those with little credit history, as then predicting is tough.
You need to build a decent recent history to show that you can be responsible with credit and use it well. The catch-22 is that as you have a poor credit history, getting credit is difficult.
The solution is to grab a credit rebuild card. See the full Credit cards for bad credit guide for full help, how to protect yourself, and top picks.
This is a card with a hideous rate, say 35% APR, which accepts people with a poor credit history. Yet provided you repay the card IN FULL each month, preferably by direct debit, and never withdraw cash, you won't be charged interest, so it's no problem.
Then just spend say, £50 a month on the card, and provided you have no other issues after six months or so, things should start to improve. After a year, it should make quite a difference.
Obviously, if you already have a credit card you aren't using, then you can do the same on that without the need to apply for a new one.
Time it right – when you apply can have a big impact
Problems such as county court judgements and bankruptcy stay on your file for six years, and data about applications for one year. So if you're near a time when old issues will lapse, holding off applying can help. Check your credit file for details.
Don't withdraw cash on credit cards
This is both expensive to do, as interest is higher and you're charged it even if you repay in full each month. Crucially, many lenders see it as evidence of poor money management.
The one exception is withdrawing cash on a specialist card abroad. See Overseas Credit Card ATM Withdrawals for full info and why they're not too bad.
Paying your rent on time can boost your credit score
Do you pay your rent on time? If so, there's a free scheme called the Rental Exchange Initiative which millions of private renters and social housing tenants can use to make paying rent bump up their credit file and boost their rating.
Launched in March 2016 by Experian and The Big Issue Group, it records your rental payments (in the same way mortgage payments would be), which are then added to your Experian credit file. For the first time since its launch, lenders can now see this information too. We explain the scheme more in our news story.
How can I join?
The mechanisms for how to join the scheme are different depending on whether you're in social housing or are a private tenant, and whether or not your landlord is already part of it.
Ask your social housing provider if they're one of the 150 already part of the scheme. If they are, your rental payment information should be automatically recorded (if you don't want to be part of the scheme, you'll need to opt out). If they're not, ask them to join the scheme and add your payment information, or you can self-report as explained below.
Ask your landlord or letting agent if they are part of the scheme. If they are, request for your payment information to be added. If they're not, you can self-report as below.
If your social housing provider, letting agent or landlord isn't part of the Rental Exchange scheme, don't panic. You can instead self-report by signing up to one of Experian's partners Credit Ladder or Canopy. Connect them to the bank account from which you pay rent (granting read-only access) and it'll use Open Banking to verify and monitor rent payments and add them to your Experian credit file.
Alternatively, another free-to-use platform, CreditLadder, has teamed up with both Experian and Equifax. By signing up, CreditLadder will feed your rental payment data into Experian and Equifax's credit assessments.
It's worth noting that the only way you'll potentially reap the benefits of this inclusion is if you always pay your rent on time. Miss a payment and it'll show up in your file and could be off-putting to lenders if/when you apply for a credit product.
Payday loans can kill mortgage applications
Some payday lenders disingenuously suggest that taking them out and repaying on time can boost your credit score, as it starts to build a history of better repayment. This is true to a very minor extent for those with abysmal credit histories – though using a credit rebuild card correctly is generally both more effective and far cheaper.
If you're getting a mortgage though, by definition you'll need a far better than abysmal credit score. So you should avoid payday loans like the plague. Not just because they're hideously expensive – see the Payday Loans guide – but because some mortgage underwriters (the ones who decide if you'll get a mortgage) have openly said they simply reject anyone who has had a payday loan, as it's an example of poor money management.
Many people were mis-sold payday loans they couldn't afford to repay. If that happened to you, you can reclaim £100s or even £1,000s - and request that any poor payment records on loans deemed to be 'unaffordable' are removed from your credit file. See our Reclaim Payday Loans for Free guide.
You can ask why you were rejected
If you apply for credit and are rejected, lenders are supposed to give you an explanation if you ask for one. It's worth doing, but usually you just get "because you failed to meet our credit scoring requirements", which makes a chocolate teapot look useful.
Never pay for a credit repair company
If you see these advertised, avoid them. Either they're doing nothing you can't do yourself with ease, or they're using illegal methods that will bite you on the bum. If you're struggling and need personalised, professional help, see a non-profit debt-counselling agency.
Stability counts, use consistent details between applications, don't overchurn
Homeowners rather than renters, and those who are employed, rather than self-employed, tend to be more readily accepted for credit.
Some lenders may factor in having a fixed (land)line rather than a mobile number on application forms, though it's unlikely it'll affect your score, so don't go paying to have one installed if you don't already have one. Having the same employer, bank and address for a while all help too.
Keep personal details the same between applications. It's crucial to be consistent, even over long periods, when you fill in applications. If you have a number of job titles or phone numbers, try to use the same one on every form. If you use different ones, you might be flagged up by fraud scoring.
Lenders can't reject you just for this, but they should tell you if National Hunter has been a contributing reason why they declined you for credit.
Life change coming? Apply before that happens
You also score higher on lenders' wish lists when you're earning, so if you may be going on maternity leave, taking time off, or if you suspect potential redundancy, apply beforehand – though never lie about your details.
Cancel unused credit and store cards
These can kill your application. Access to too much available credit, even if it isn't used, can be a problem. If you have a range of unused credit cards and lots of available credit, it could be a good idea to cancel some of them. This lowers your available credit and should help.
However, just to complicate things, long-standing accounts with good credit histories can be a benefit to your credit score, so they're often best left open. There's no definitive answer as to whether you should close down your old cards, because all lenders are different. But, look to strike a happy medium – if you've lots and lots of unused credit, close some cards down, but don't close 'em all. And above all, don't max out.
If you need to cut credit card debt costs, first check if the old cards will let you shift debt from other cards to them cheaply, as you then won't need to apply for new credit. This helps your credit file, and means you're using your existing credit more efficiently. See Balance Transfers for full info.
There is no definitive answer to this, as different lenders are looking for different people.
For some lenders, unused credit will be a complete turn-off – they will be apprehensive that if you had a spare £15,000, say, of unused credit, you could go out and spend it in one afternoon, and thus decrease your likelihood of being able to pay them back if they granted you a card.
However, some lenders will be looking for your credit utilisation – this is a fancy way of saying how much of the credit available to you are you using. It's best to aim for a figure around 25% or less (and it's best if it's not all concentrated on one card).
Lenders don't want your utilisation ratio to be 100% (in simple terms, you're maxed out) – it's a sign you're desperate for credit, and that you can't pay up. But they also don't want you to be using no credit – to have a utilisation ratio of 0%. When they credit check you, lenders are looking for a repayment history, and if you're not using your cards, they don't have it.
So, as we say above, if you've lots and lots of unused credit, close some cards down, but don't close 'em all - and above all, don't max out.
There is a big confusion here, and the only way to dispel it is to shout loud...
Cutting up a card is NOT the same as cancelling!
Snipping your plastic in half simply stops you using it, but has no positive impact for you as a customer. Instead call up the card company and tell it you want to cancel the account. If possible, ask for confirmation in writing, as sometimes firms don't action it.
Even once you've cancelled, it doesn't mean the account is closed. It'll often be left open for a bit in case any payments still need to come through, so always double-check your final statement to ensure everything's gone through. Then check your credit report a few months later to double-check it's done and dusted.
In other words, just to make things difficult: cutting up doesn't mean cancelling, and cancelling doesn't always mean closure.
Funnily enough the mere attempt to cancel may reap rewards. Often when you do this, the credit card company will try to tempt you to stay with some form of special offer deal. Such offers are always worth considering, especially for those still needing to borrow.
Reduce your debts with savings, if you have them
The amount of outstanding debt you have is part of the information lenders have access to. If you've too much debt, then that hurts your file. After all, would you want to lend to someone who already had a lot of debts to pay elsewhere? So minimising this is a clever strategy.
In general, you'll be better off using savings to pay off expensive debts anyway (read Pay Off Debts With Savings to find out why).
This is particularly true if you're applying for a mortgage – the less you're borrowing in proportion to your house's value, the better deal you can get.
Default on your credit report? Mitigate the damage
One of the major problems people face are defaults on their credit reports – in other words, when it shows you didn't pay but should have done. These, especially if they're recent, are a hammer-blow when applying for new credit.
If the default shouldn't be there, read how to challenge unfair defaults. If it's genuine and fair, your options are limited. After all, credit reports are there to show lenders your history.
There are two main routes...
If you're prepared to settle the debt, in part or in full, then you can negotiate with whoever you owe the money to. You can also ask to make it a condition of settlement that the default is wiped off your credit report. If you're not sure, speak to a non-profit debt-help agency.
The other route is to allow time to heal it – defaults stay on your credit report for six years, but even before that, the longer ago the default was, the less impact it has, especially if your more recent credit behaviour has been impeccable.
Unfair default or other error on your credit report? Fight it
If you discover an unfair default on your credit report, you need to dispute it as it will block most applications. Check if the same default is on the other two credit reference agencies' reports.
Unfair defaults can occur for a number of reasons. It could be a simple clerical error by the credit reference agency, in which case contact it to get it removed – they are usually helpful.
More likely, though, is the lender has put it there in error, or that you were in dispute with the company over whether you owed it the money or not.
Try the following tactics:
Write to the company which put the default on your report to ask for it to be removed, telling it your reasons why the default is unfair. Keep this formal, polite and to the point. Tell it you'll be taking it to the Financial Ombudsman if the default isn't removed.
If that fails, add a notice of correction to the credit report explaining the problem, eg, "it was a joint account and the debt was run up once I had split from my ex-husband/wife," or "the debt was for a pair of shoes from a catalogue but they never arrived so I refused to pay it".
Don't go on too much when explaining the error. Be concise and factual.
The notice will slow applications down, as most companies will look at it manually. But as a substantial default is likely to stop you getting credit, that's usually not a problem.
Most complaints about credit reports - as they're most likely to be about banks, insurance companies or other lenders - should be addressed to the Financial Ombudsman. It can adjudicate that the default is unfair and ask for all traces of it to be removed (and order recompense for damage if appropriate).
If your complaint is with an energy company – perhaps it's saying you owe it money when you don't, leaving a mark on your report – then you can also take it to the Energy Ombudsman. Similarly, the Communications Ombudsman will help if it's a broadband or mobile company. Both can order companies to remove information from your credit report.
For help in making your complaint, see our Complaining To The Financial Ombudsman guide.
Paying insurance monthly affects your credit score
If you decide to pay for insurance in monthly instalments, a 'hard search' will be carried out and this will affect your credit score. It's always worth paying upfront if you can – some insurance providers charge APRs of up to 40% if you pay monthly.
However, many people also worry that using comparison sites will also affect their credit score. Comparison sites share your information with a number of insurers. They look at your credit report to check who you are, provide you with quotes and to see if you would be able to meet monthly payments.
Yet the good news is that these searches are 'soft' searches, so other lenders DON'T see them and they won't affect your credit rating. Only you can see the search has been done.
For more information on this, including how to avoid it, see our Car Insurance guide.
Ask for a 'quotation search' or 'soft search' if available
If you're just trying to get a specific quote for a loan, ask the lender to do a 'quotation search' or a 'soft search', not a 'credit search'. This means that while an enquiry will appear on your credit report, only you can see it. Lenders can't, so it won't have an impact on your credit score.
Sadly, many lenders haven't yet adopted this practice, but it's worth asking. If not, consider whether you really want to get a quote – if it's unlikely you'll get the product, don't bother.
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