A credit report is not the same thing that you get when you ask for your "credit report" directly from the credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion or through the only authorized source for the free annual credit reports, AnnualCreditReport.com. That document is known in the credit reporting industry as a consumer disclosure. The purpose of a consumer disclosure is to comply with the federal law which requires the credit reporting agencies to disclose the contents of your credit file to you when you ask for it. Nor is a credit report something that currently exists at this very moment. Unless it just so happens that right now you are applying for credit, you don't have a credit report. A credit report is something that is created at the moment it is asked for.
At its most basic level, a credit report is simply a report that is generated from the databases owned by the credit reporting agencies. When you apply for credit, your potential creditor will use your name, address, SSN, etc. to post an inquiry to a credit reporting agency. And, based upon the information used, the credit reporting agency will search its database and locate the credit file that most closely matches the name, address, SSN, etc. used in the inquiry. The credit reporting agency then plucks the specific data the inquiry has requested and generates a report using the data it gathered. This report is your actual credit report.
Commonly, credit reports will contain your personal information including: your name, address, SSN and DOB. They will also include tradelines; which are your accounts, like your mortgage, credit card accounts, etc. Credit reports usually include public records, such as judgments, civil suits, arrest records, bankruptcies, liens and accounts placed into collections. Another typical part of a credit report is a list of creditors who have requested your credit report in the past.
The source of the information the credit reporting agencies use come from data furnishers like mortgage and credit card lenders and collection agencies. Public record vendors like LexisNexis also provide the credit reporting agencies with data. Companies like LexisNexis will collect public record information, compile it and then give that information to Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. At any given time, the credit reporting agencies maintain hundreds of millions of consumer credit files in their databases. According to some estimates these files relate to approximately 250 million credit active consumers across the United States. Many consumers have more than one credit file in a consumer reporting agency's system. For more about credit files, click here and here.
For the most part you will never see your credit report. When you go and apply for credit, even if you are denied credit, it is very unlikely that the creditor will show you the credit report. However, creditors are required to send you an adverse action letter, a denial letter, which would give you some indication of the reasons for your denial. In all likelihood the creditor will not initiate sharing your credit report with you. If you are denied credit, ask the lender to give you a copy of your credit report. Lenders are not required by law to disclosure your credit report, but sometimes lenders are willing to provide you a copy upon request.
Each credit report is unique. It's a version of your credit file at that particular moment in time. Since your credit report is currently not a tangible thing, it may look different today than it did month from now, and will certainly would look different today than it did three months ago.