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Advice

How to freeze your credit

A credit freeze is easy to set up and a great way to protect against identity theft. Here's how to freeze your credit with each credit bureau.

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A credit freeze is easy to set up and a smart way to protect against identity theft. When you freeze your credit, you prevent unauthorized access to your credit report. This helps protect against fraudsters opening new accounts in your name even if they have your personal information.

Below, CNBC Select explains how to freeze your credit with each credit bureau and some common questions surrounding credit freezes.

How to freeze your credit

  • What is a credit freeze?
  • How do I freeze my credit?
  • Should I freeze my credit?
  • Who can access my credit once it's frozen?
  • How do I unfreeze my credit?

What is a credit freeze?

A credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) restricts access to your credit reports, helping safeguard against fraudsters opening new accounts in your name. There is no affect to your credit score or current credit accounts.

How do I freeze my credit?

You'll need to freeze your credit with each of the three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion). This process doesn't take long and can be completed in less than 10 minutes per bureau.

When you freeze your credit, you'll need to provide personal information, such as name, address, social security number and birth date. You'll typically be asked a few questions to verify your identity then be prompted to create a PIN, which should be kept in a secure location.

Below, we list how to freeze your credit with each bureau.

How to do an Equifax credit freeze

Equifax lets you freeze your credit online at the Equifax consumer services center or by calling 800-349-9960.

How to do an Experian credit freeze

You can freeze your credit at Experian's security freeze center or by calling 888-397-3742.

How to do a TransUnion credit freeze

Freeze your credit at TransUnion's website or by calling 888-909-8872.

Should I freeze my credit?

Experts recommend freezing your credit report so you can proactively monitor your accounts. Checking credit card bills, bank statements or credit reports periodically is helpful, but those actions are reactive and cannot ward off potential fraud.

A credit freeze is a free tool that limits access to your credit reports and can help safeguard against identity theft. Be aware that while credit reports are a great resource, they're not a fool-proof way to prevent fraud. Credit reports reduce access to your credit and prevent new account openings, but they don't prevent someone stealing your credit card number.

Who can access my credit once it's frozen?

When you freeze your credit, you limit who has access to your credit report. Fraudsters won't be able to open new accounts in your name — regardless of whether they have access to your social security number and other personal information.

Any banks that you already have relationships with will continue to have access to your credit report. For example, if you request a credit limit increase with the Citi® Double Cash Card, Citi may review your credit report.

Debt collectors and marketers will also have access. If you want to stop getting prescreened credit offers, opt out by going online or calling 888-567-8688.

You'll still have access to your credit and can check your credit report for free.

How do I unfreeze my credit?

You can unfreeze your credit by going to the same credit bureau websites that you accessed to freeze your credit, or by calling the numbers listed above. There will be the option to temporarily lift a freeze for a set amount of time, which can be used if you need to apply for a credit card, mortgage, loan or other financial product.

You also have the option to completely remove the freeze, which we don't recommend doing unless you don't have a finite timeline on when your credit will be pulled. If you remove a freeze, reinstate it once the application process is complete.

When you unfreeze your credit, you typically have access to your credit report within an hour, but it may vary. We've tested this for all three credit bureaus and were able to apply for a credit card within the hour.

The Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act set an official timeline for when credit freezes need to be removed, after a consumer's request:

  • Requests by toll-free telephone or secure electronic means: One hour after receiving the request for removal.
  • Requests by mail: Three business days after receiving the request for removal.

Bottom line

Freezing your credit is an important step to take to protect yourself against identity theft. While it doesn't guarantee you'll never be a victim of fraud, it can offer some peace of mine. The process is quick and free to implement, so there's no financial reason to avoid setting up a credit freeze.

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