There are plenty of promotions on the internet these days offering to give you your credit score for free. They come from banks, credit unions, and credit card issuers. Big names such as Bank of America, Chase, Citi, and Discover are among those making the offer.

Usually, you need to be a customer to get your score. But Discover Financial Services recently started offering free FICO scores through its "Credit Scorcard" program even to people who aren't customers. (You’ll need to hand over some personal data, including your Social Security number.)

“The credit reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—still charge a fee for credit scores under most circumstances," explains Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the National Foundation of Credit Counselors. "So credit card issuers can offer it for free to attract consumers."

Why Check Your Credit Score?

It's a good idea to look at your credit score, a three-digit number that reflects your creditworthiness. It tells prospective lenders how much debt you already have, the kind of debt you’ve incurred, and whether you make loan payments on time, among other things. In short, it puts a number on the likelihood that you’ll pay back your loan.

Your credit score can help a lender decide whether to charge you higher interest rates on, say, a mortgage, than it would charge if you had a better score. If your credit score is too low, you might not get approved for a loan at all.

By knowing your score, you can take steps to improve it by reducing the amount of debt you owe and making card card payments on time. It's a good idea to review your credit reports, which are used to generate your credit score. You can do it at no cost at AnnualCreditReport.com. If there are errors, you can get them fixed and improve your score. In the long run, such steps can improve your financial well-being. You'll be eligible for credit at lower interest rates, a potentially big money-saver.

Until a couple years ago, consumers weren’t always able to see the credit scores that lenders used when making loan decisions. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau urged lenders to make those scores available to consumers, and a number of financial institutions are now voluntarily doing that. Consumers Union, the advocacy and policy arm of Consumer Reports, supports legislation that would guarantee consumers get free scores—the ones actually used by lenders—at the same time that they get their free annual credit reports. In addition, Consumers Union says that consumers should be able to see their scores for free before they apply for mortgages, student loans, and other types of debt.

Better Insight

The most widely used score is the FICO score, created by the Fair Isaac Corp. The score typically ranges from a low of 300 to a high of 850. The FICO score is used in more than 90 percent of consumer loan decisions, according to Can Arkali, a FICO researcher. There are about 60 different FICO scores too, though just 28 of those are in regular use, says Arkali. (You can view them—and purchase them all for a fee—at myFICO.com.) Arkali notes that the scores can differ slightly, depending upon factors such as the type of loan the consumer is requesting.

The FICO score you have can also differ depending on which of the three credit agencies supply the underlying data. Those three companies—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—may not have identical credit history information on you.

If you have been using credit for at least six months, you can get a FICO score. If you've had credit for less time than that, but for at least one month, you can still get an idea of your creditworthiness from a different score, known as VantageScore. It’s offered for free by websites such as Credit.com, CreditKarma, and CreditSesame.

How to Get a Free FICO Score

While it’s become easier to get a free FICO score, you may still have to scout around a little to get yours. Here’s how to get started:

Consult your bank or credit card issuer. If you have a loan or a credit card already, many big banks will now be able to provide you with your FICO score as part of the FICO Open Access Program. It may already be on your credit card or loan statement, or you may be able to get it simply by logging into your account. Program participants include well-known firms such as American Express, Bank of America, Chase, Citi, and Wells Fargo. Depending on the financial institution, you may be required to have either a loan or a credit card to get your score.

Request your FICO score from Discover. If you're not a customer, you’ll need to decide beforehand if you’re comfortable giving Discover personal data in order to get your FICO score. Discover says it will never send your personal information to a third party, but it could use it to market products to you. Be sure to review Discover's privacy policy.

Talk to a nonprofit counselor. If you’re a client of a consumer credit counseling service, you are entitled to receive your FICO score for free. Such services can help you develop a plan to pay down debt, save more money, and improve your financial situation. Check with the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling for services near you.