Hard vs soft credit checks – what’s the difference?

When you apply for credit, or an organisation checks your credit file, you’ll be subject to a hard or soft credit check. It’s important to know the difference between the two types of credit searches (hard vs soft) and how credit checks affect you and your credit score. 

6 min read
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What's the difference between a hard search and a soft search? 

Soft credit checks are only visible to you on your report. They’re used for things like eligibility checks and background checks. Soft searches aren’t visible to companies checking your credit report, and don’t affect your credit score. But hard searches leave a mark on your credit history and can impact your score. 

What is a credit check? 

A credit check (or credit search) is when a company checks your credit report to see how well you've managed money, credit contracts, and debt in the past.  

This shows certain details about your finances, such as existing debts, open credit accounts, and your credit utilisation ratio (how much of your available credit you are using).

Your credit report will also show some of the companies you have contracts with, such as energy, phone or broadband, and your payment history with these. 

In addition, it will show any financial links you have with other people. For example, if you have a joint mortgage with your partner. 

Some public records also appear on your credit report. These include open electoral roll entries, bankruptcies, individual voluntary agreements (IVAs), and county court judgments (CCJs). 

Who carries out credit checks? 

Lenders and other organisations use credit checks to help them decide whether to accept you for certain products or services. These include:  

  • mortgages 

  • loans 

  • credit cards 

  • car finance 

  • pay-monthly mobile contracts 

  • Direct Debit energy contracts  

  • tenancy agreements 

Credit checks might be carried out by: 

  • banks and building societies 

  • mobile phone companies 

  • landlords and letting agents 

  • mortgage lenders 

  • credit card companies 

  • utility providers (e.g. energy and broadband) 

  • employers (if you work in certain professions) 

You can also check your own credit report or credit score with one, or more, of the UK credit reference agencies. These are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You can see your Equifax credit report for free (for life) through our member-only platform, CredAbility. 

Soft vs hard credit check 

There are two types of credit checks: 

  • soft credit check (also known as a soft search or eligibility check) 

  • hard credit check (or hard search) 

What is a soft credit check? 

A soft search is a preliminary credit check. It means a lender will search for some information about you but will not see all your credit report information. 

Companies carry out soft searches to predict how successful your application might be without conducting a full examination of your credit history. 

Soft credit checks don’t impact your credit score or future credit applications. Companies accessing your credit history cannot see previous soft searches – only you can see them, and they’ll stay on your credit history for 12 months.  

When you look at your credit report, you’ll see which companies have carried out soft inquiries. This will give you an idea of who’s looking into your credit history. 

Checking your search history can also help you identify early signs of identity fraud. For example, you might find that someone has tried to take out credit in your name. 

Technically, you can’t ‘fail’ a soft credit check as you’re not applying for anything. 

What does a soft credit check show? 

A soft credit check is like a snapshot of your financial history. 

It shows: 

  • Personal details, including your name, address, and date of birth 

  • A list of any credit accounts you currently have, including bank accounts, loans, and credit card accounts 

  • Details of your repayment history, including any missed or late payments 

  • Details of anyone you’re financially linked to, for example, a spouse or partner that you have joint credit with 

  • Public record information on any county court judgements, bankruptcies, and individual voluntary agreements over the past six years 

When is a soft credit check carried out? 

Soft credit checks are used: 

  • when you check your own credit report 

  • for eligibility checks 

  • to give quotes for insurance 

  • for identity checks 

  • for marketing purposes to existing customers 

  • by insurers offering pay monthly premiums 

What is a hard credit check? 

A hard credit check is when an organisation takes an in-depth look at your credit report. It will need your permission to do this.  

With a hard credit check, lenders will be able to carry out an in-depth examination of your credit history. They’ll see your history of debt and bill repayments, including missed payments, defaults, and arrears. Information is visible on your credit report for six years. 

A hard credit check leaves a mark or ‘footprint’ on your credit report. This means that whenever prospective lenders look at your credit report, they will be able to see that you applied for credit and whether you were accepted. 

Hard credit checks can temporarily impact your credit score. The effect it has reduces over time, as long as you make your repayments each month. 

Too many hard credit checks in a short timeframe, such as three to six months, suggests financial difficulties or that you are desperate to borrow money. This will mean you will be less likely to be accepted for credit. 

What does a hard credit check show? 

A hard credit check is a more in-depth report of your financial history. 

It shows: 

  • Everything you can see on a soft credit check 

  • A lot more personal information, such as past addresses and your employment history.  

  • A complete history of credit accounts – details on every credit card, loan, mortgage, utility account, etc you have held in the past six years.  

  • Public records such as bankruptcies, individual voluntary agreements and county court judgments (CCJs). 

  • All hard credit inquiries submitted over the past two years.  

When is a hard credit check carried out? 

Hard credit checks are used when you apply for the following: 

  • credit products such as a mortgage, loan, or credit card 

  • pay-monthly mobile phone or utility contracts 

  • car finance 

  • jobs in certain professions, such as finance 

Differences between hard and soft credit checks 

The main difference between hard and soft credit checks is that hard checks leave a mark on your credit report, while soft checks do not.  

Hard searches are visible to any organisation carrying out a hard check for up to two years. They can also temporarily impact your credit score. 

On the other hand, only you can see soft searches on your credit report, and they don’t affect your credit score.  

How can I avoid hard credit checks? 

The only way to avoid hard credit checks is not to apply for credit or any services with an element of ‘credit’ such as a mobile phone contract. If you need to apply for these things, then you can't avoid hard credit checks.  

There are ways of reducing the impact of hard searches on your credit score.  

You can use an eligibility checker to see credit products for which you are more likely to be accepted. This will limit the number of hard searches on your report, as will spacing out your applications. Try to avoid multiple applications within 6 months to reduce the effect on your credit score.  

Hard credit checks can affect your credit score for up to 12 months. Once you’re accepted for credit, making repayments on time each month will improve your score. 

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Disclaimer: All information and links are correct at the time of publishing.

Emma Lunn, Personal Finance Writer

Emma Lunn

Personal Finance Writer

Emma has been writing about personal finance for 20 years. She's passionate about helping people make better money decisions so they have the time and money to focus on the things they love. For her, that's racket sports, hiking, and travel.