Do you start with a credit score of '0'?

When you think about it, credit scores have a lot in common with the SATs: They stress people out, involve tough-to-answer questions and play a huge role in determining whether your applications (albeit for financing) get denied.

There’s another notable similarity, too, which you may not know about: When it comes to credit scores, you can’t get a zero.

The Lowest Possible Credit Score

Most major credit scoring models, including standard FICO and Vantage Scores, have a range of 300 to 850, with 300 representing the lowest, or worst, possible score and 850 representing the highest, or absolute best. (You can learn more about what constitutes a good credit score here.)

Some specialty scores, including the FICO Industry Option scores, have a lower minimum (250), but, generally, no matter what model we’re talking about, “you don’t start at zero and, let’s say, work your way up to a respectable score over time,” Barry Paperno, a credit scoring expert who worked at FICO for many years and now writes for SpeakingofCredit.com, said in an email.

You also don’t really start at a 350. That’s because until you meet a model’s minimum criteria, you won’t have any score at all. In that case, the credit bureaus will let a lender (or landlord or cable company or anyone else requesting your credit as part of their application process) know that you’re score-less.

“When a score can’t be computed because the credit report doesn’t meet the minimum scoring criteria, an alpha or numeric ‘exclusion code’ is transmitted to the requester indicating one, that no score can be calculated, and two, a general reason why the credit report didn’t meet the minimum scoring requirements,” Paperno said.

No Panic Necessary

Thin-to-no credit can certainly make it harder to secure a loan, but there are lines of credit specifically designed to help people in that demographic (see secured credit cards, student credit cards or credit-builder loans) establish a credit history. And, after you get ahold of some starter credit, it shouldn’t be too long before a model is able to calculate your score. For instance, the minimum criteria for the FICO scoring models, Paperno said, generally includes:

  • At least one account opened more than six months ago
  • At least one account reported to the credit bureau within the past six months
  • No indicator on the credit report that the consumer is deceased

Moreover, once you meet this criteria, you could conceivably find you have a decent score — so long, of course, as you’re using your credit account(s) responsibly.

“For instance, you can be 18-years-old with a secured card opened six months ago, pay on time every month, keep a low utilization, and your first score can be in the high 600s,” Paperno said.

Remember, to build good credit in the long-term, you want to make all loan payments on time, keep the amount of debt you owe below at least 30%, and ideally 10%, of your total available credit limit(s), and add a mix of accounts to your credit file as your score and your wallet can handle it. You can track your progress toward building good credit by viewing two of your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.

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