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A hard inquiry is a request to check your credit, typically to make a decision about your loan or credit card application. It may shave a few points off your credit score, but it's temporary.
When you check your credit yourself, it's a soft credit inquiry or soft credit check, and it doesn't affect your score.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act places restrictions on when and why your credit report may be checked.
What is a hard inquiry?
A hard inquiry, also called a hard pull or hard credit check, requires your consent. It is triggered when you apply for credit, such as a mortgage, credit card, auto loan, student loan or personal loan. It doesn't happen if you are only looking for pre-qualification to decide whether to apply.
This inquiry becomes part of your credit report, meaning anyone who pulls your credit can see it. A hard inquiry will remain on your credit report for about two years, but it stops affecting your credit score in less than a year.
When you apply for a credit product that involves a hard inquiry on your credit, you may get an influx of marketing messages from lenders. This happens because credit bureaus sell marketing lists triggered by hard inquiries. But you can opt out, either permanently or for five years. Visit OptOutPreScreen, a service of credit bureaus Equifax, Experian, TransUnion and Innovis, or call 888-567-8688. The bureaus say your request will be effective within five days. Note that you may still receive marketing offers from lenders that use other sources. Opting out does not affect your credit score or your ability to apply for credit or insurance.
How does a hard inquiry affect your credit score?
A single hard inquiry can shave up to 5 points off your FICO score. However, with the most-used FICO model, all inquiries within a 45-day period are considered as one inquiry when you are “rate shopping,” such as for mortgage, student and auto loans. Older FICO models and VantageScore, FICO's competitor, also group inquiries for rate shopping, but into a 14-day period. A VantageScore spokesman said a hard inquiry can shave up to 10 points off a VantageScore.
Most lenders or card issuers will pull a credit report from just one of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian or TransUnion. So the inquiry will show up on only one of your credit reports. The exception is for a mortgage, when all three credit bureaus are usually checked.
It is smart to limit hard inquiries. Before you apply for credit, check to be as certain as you can that you are likely to be approved so you don't lose score points without getting the approval you seek. Avoid applying for credit on impulse. Consider whether a discount or bonus you are hoping to receive is worth the potential ding to your credit score. If you have excellent credit, a few points may not be a big deal. However, if you have borderline credit quality, think twice.
What is a soft inquiry?
Soft inquiries, also known as soft pulls or soft credit checks, can occur without you knowing about them. If you’ve ever received a credit card offer in the mail, it’s likely that the credit card company did a soft credit check to see if you would likely qualify. The same goes for other types of loan offers, or when a mortgage broker or lender does a pre-qualification or preapproval.
Employers also may do a background check on you, including a look at a modified credit report. While they need your consent to look at your credit report, it's not considered a hard inquiry because it isn't for the purpose of deciding whether to extend you credit.
Most importantly, checking your own credit is a soft inquiry, so it won't affect your score. You can get your free credit report on demand from a personal finance website like NerdWallet. Or, you can use AnnualCreditReport.com to get your reports from the three major credit bureaus. The reports are free, and you are entitled to one from each bureau per week.
When you look at your own credit reports, you'll see soft inquiries listed, but those don't show up on the reports that creditors see.
» LEARN: How soft credit checks work in Canada
Hard credit inquiry or soft inquiry?
Some inquiries can be either soft or hard. If you rent a car, apply to rent an apartment, sign up for cable TV or internet service, open an account at a financial institution, or someone just needs to verify your identity, you may get hit with either a hard inquiry or a soft inquiry. The only way to know ahead of time is to ask the potential landlord or service provider.