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Why do I have a 'hard inquiry' on my credit report—and what does that do to my credit score?

If you recently applied for a new credit card or loan, you may notice the term "hard inquiry" on your next credit report. Here's how it impacts your credit score.

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You may have once pulled your credit report and noticed something called a "hard inquiry."

If you're new to seeing this, it's most likely because you applied for credit within the last two years — whether it was for a new credit card or a loan. Before you dismiss the two-word phrase, you should know that it actually has implications for your credit score

Below, CNBC Select breaks down what a hard inquiry is and what you need to know when you see one on your credit report.

What is a hard inquiry?

When you apply for a credit card or any other type of loan (a mortgage, auto loan), you give the issuer or lender permission to check your credit report to assess your "creditworthiness." In essence, your potential lender is looking to see how likely you are to pay back the money you borrowed. The healthier credit history you have, the less risk you demonstrate, and the greater the likelihood you'll qualify for that new credit card or loan.

When a credit card issuer or lender pulls your credit report from one of the three main credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax or TransUnion), this is called a hard inquiry (or "hard pull").

Compared to a soft inquiry (or "soft pull") — which doesn't pull your credit report — a hard inquiry can actually ding your credit score a few points, regardless if you end up being approved or denied for the credit card or loan.

What triggers a hard inquiry on your credit report?

If you see a hard inquiry listed on your credit report it is because you have applied for credit in the last two years.

This could mean that you applied for a credit card, whether it be a rewards card, a cash-back card or even a balance transfer card like the U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card.

A hard inquiry will also end up on your personal credit report when you open a business credit card. This is because your personal credit is usually reviewed by the issuer even when applying for a small business credit card, such as the Capital One® Spark® Classic for Business.

When you apply for a mortgage, student or auto loan, a hard inquiry will be noted on your credit report. There's a difference, however, between applying for multiple credit cards in a short amount of time and shopping around for the best mortgage rate in a short amount of time. 

"There are certain instances, such as applying for a car loan or a mortgage, that only count as one inquiry for scoring purposes as long as they occur within a certain window of time, typically 14 to 45 days," Shon Anderson, a certified financial planner and president at Anderson Financial Strategies, tells CNBC Select. "The reason is they know you are probably shopping around for the best terms, and you are probably not going to get three or four car loans or mortgages all at once."

And it's not just credit card applications and loans that pull your credit report, resulting in a hard inquiry. Lenders may also look at your credit if you ask for a credit limit increase.

How a hard inquiry impacts your credit score

Although hard inquiries remain on your credit report for two years, FICO only considers inquiries from the last 12 months when calculating your credit score.

For example, if you see a hard inquiry listed on your credit report but it was from over a year ago, it wouldn't influence your credit score or deduct any points from it.

Your credit history also plays a role in how much a hard inquiry would impact your credit score.

According to FICO, one credit inquiry on most people's credit reports will take less than five points off of their FICO score. They say "most" people because not everyone has the same credit history. If you have a healthy credit history and credit score to begin with, it's likely that any hard inquiry on your credit report would do very little damage to your score, or even none at all.

Hard inquiries tend to have a greater impact on the credit scores of people with a short credit history or few credit accounts. This means that for those just starting to build their credit, a hard inquiry can knock off more points from your credit score than it would for someone who has a long credit history. But don't let that prevent you from applying for credit. It's OK to have inquiries periodically — it indicates you are trying to build credit — but you just don't want too many hard inquiries on your credit report in a short amount of time.

What a credit card issuer or lender thinks when they see a hard inquiry on your credit report

Hard inquiries fall under the "less influential" category when calculating credit scores using the VantageScore model, and they make up only 10% of a FICO score calculation. But they play a big part when it comes to credit card issuers and lenders assessing your potential risk.

Lenders pull your credit report to see how credit worthy you are, but finding a bunch of inquiries on your credit report will show them you may be financially stressed and a bigger risk for borrowing in the future. 

According to FICO, "Statistically, people with six inquiries or more on their credit reports can be up to eight times more likely to declare bankruptcy than people with no inquiries on their reports."

But while these hard inquiries do show risk, lenders also consider other factors when making approval decisions, such as your income and payment history. 

How to minimize the number of hard inquiries you have

Hard inquiries aren't bad to have — even if they may cause a slight temporary dip in your credit scores — but it can be good practice to know how to minimize the number of inquiries on your credit report.

Below, CNBC Select rounded up some general guidelines to keep track of your hard inquiries: 

  • Don't apply for several credit cards within a short timeframe. Experts generally recommend only applying for a credit card every six months.
  • Only apply for credit cards you would actually benefit from using. (You don't want to rack up hard inquiries on cards you don't need.)
  • Make sure you check your credit score beforehand (this is considered a soft inquiry and won't harm your score). You can do so for free with most card issuers, using apps such as Discover's Credit Scorecard and Chase's Credit Journey (available to all).
  • Before applying for a credit card, shop around with prequalification tools, which allow you to check your likelihood of qualifying for a card without damaging your credit.

Bottom line:

If you spot a hard inquiry on your credit report, don't sweat it too much. It's there because your credit was pulled by an issuer or lender when you applied for a credit card or loan. And if your credit score does get dinged from it, it's OK. It can bounce back in a few months if you use your card responsibly.

It's important to establish a credit history, just make sure you don't raise a red flag to issuers by applying for many credit cards all at once and racking up a bunch of hard inquiries.

And when it comes to your credit score, more than anything it's important you pay your bills on time and in full when due.

Information about the Capital One® Spark® Classic for Business and U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.