By Mike Azzara | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
6 Min Read | December 20, 2019 in Credit
Unfreezing credit is necessary in many situations—like taking out a mortgage, getting a new credit card account, or applying for a job.
It’s free to do online, by phone, or via U.S. mail.
If you ask which credit bureau is going to be used in the process, you may only have to unfreeze that one instead of all three.
Let’s say you’ve frozen your credit to protect yourself from identity thieves and other fraudsters who might look to profit from your good name (and excellent credit history). But now, that small SUV is calling your name. Or maybe you’re applying to refinance your mortgage. How do you unfreeze your credit to allow these transactions?
Unfreezing your credit for free can be fast and easy at all three major credit reporting agencies, as long as you have carefully preserved your account passwords or PINs. It was for me—and it can be for you, too. The process for unfreezing credit, the time it takes, and its for-free nature are all stipulated in the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, which went into effect in September 2018.1
This article provides step-by-step instruction for how to unfreeze your credit, drawn from my experience doing so at all three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian.
Unfreezing credit is about restoring access to your credit report, assuming you’ve already chosen to do a credit freeze (which the credit bureaus generally refer to as a “security freeze”). Some people are confused about credit freezes. Many think it means freezing their current credit card accounts—which would be a major pain for most Americans—rather than freezing access to reports about their credit history. So, they miss the point that credit freezes are about protecting you from the cost and disruption to your life that can happen when identity thieves attempt to open new accounts in your name. Freezing your credit does not protect you against criminals who might steal from your existing credit card, bank accounts, etc.
You’ll want to at least temporarily unfreeze access to your credit report for many big steps in life. Your credit report is obviously important if you’re trying to buy a house or a car, or to open a new credit card account. Other purposes are less obvious.
Do you need to unfreeze your credit for a background check? It’s a good bet. Technically, the 2018 law has you covered, listing a few exclusions such as background checks. But in reality, experts say you still have to unfreeze, and the Federal Trade Commission does not list exclusions.3,4
The unfreezing process is pretty similar at all three credit bureaus. And it can be fast and easy if you’ve safeguarded your passwords and PINs (many people apparently don’t, leading to frustration later).
For the purpose of this article, I went online to temporarily unfreeze my credit for three days at TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. It took roughly a minute at TransUnion:
At Equifax, I was initially confused, even though its “3 easy steps” were clear enough:
But back when I originated my credit freeze in October 2017, Equifax didn’t require freezers to establish an account. Instead, you froze and unfroze using a 10-digit PIN that you selected (or was assigned to you) when you established your credit freeze. So when I arrived at the Equifax credit reporting services page, I wasn’t sure I should set up an account or look for an alternative form to do it the “old” way.
Taking the instructions at face value proved to be a good choice:
Experian’s online experience is a little different, because it still doesn’t make you create a user account.
Not necessarily! Whoever is looking to review your credit report, that organization probably gets its reports from only one of the three agencies. I’ve had good luck on this front. Once, a car dealer told me it would be Experian. The second time I unfroze, it was narrowed down to Experian and TransUnion. Don’t expect anyone to tell you this as a matter of course—you have to ask. In both cases, the people I asked were clearly agitated by the question, thinking it meant there would be delays getting my report. But it happened instantly.
Learning how to unfreeze your credit for free can be as important as learning how to freeze your credit in the first place—especially if you ever want to get a mortgage or a new credit card, buy insurance, or take numerous other big steps in life. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process, as long as you safeguard your account information and PINs.
1 Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, Congress.gov
2 “Total Household Debt Rises for 19th Straight Quarter, Now Nearly $1 Trillion Above Previous Peak,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York
3 “How Freezing Your Credit Impacts Background Investigations,” Security Clearance Jobs Blog
4 “Credit Freeze FAQs,” Federal Trade Commission