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Credit card fraud is the most common type of identity theft in the U.S., and 33% of Americans have experienced some sort of identity theft, according to a 2022 Federal Trade Commission report. With the frequency of fraud increasing, you may be looking for ways to protect yourself and wondering whether putting a freeze on your credit is a good idea.
A credit freeze seals your credit files until you remove the freeze, preventing new accounts from being opened without your knowledge. You can freeze your credit by contacting each of the credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion).
By freezing your credit, you keep the sensitive data in your credit files from being accessed while your credit is frozen. That can help protect you even if identity thieves have your Social Security number or other essential data.
Before you request a credit freeze, let's look at what a freeze does, its benefits and drawbacks, and how to unfreeze your credit when you need to.
How to freeze your credit
When do you need a credit freeze?
When do you need to lift a credit freeze?
What is a credit freeze?
A credit freeze, sometimes called a security freeze, is a tool to help consumers prevent potential lenders from accessing their credit reports, thereby preventing criminals from opening new lines of credit in your name. Federal law ensures that credit freezes are free and dictates the amount of time the credit bureaus have to freeze or unfreeze your credit. Credit freezes also don’t affect your credit score or existing credit accounts.
Although this is helpful if you've been hacked or want to prevent identity theft, it can also prevent you from getting approved for a new loan or credit card as long as your credit is frozen. Because a credit freeze blocks potential lenders from conducting a credit check, you’ll need to lift the freeze, or “thaw” your credit, when applying for a loan or credit card.
Even if your credit is frozen, your credit files are still available to particular groups. These include creditors of accounts you currently hold, government agencies such as those that monitor child support payments, and potential employers or landlords confirming your identity.
Be careful not to confuse a credit freeze with a credit lock. A credit lock is usually an optional service offered by credit reporting agencies that may have a fee associated with it if it’s offered as part of a credit monitoring service.
How to freeze your credit
Freezing your credit is straightforward and can be done online, over the phone, or by regular mail service. Start by contacting all three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) at the websites or phone numbers below.
When you visit each website, you’ll likely be asked to create an online account, including setting up a personal identification number (PIN) to help you manage your freeze. You will also have to provide personal information to verify your identity. If you call or complete the request online, the freeze should go into effect within one business day, if not within a couple of hours.
If you mail a written request, the freeze could take up to three business days after the credit agency receives your information.
What information do you need to provide to freeze your credit?
After setting up your account, you’ll need specific details to make freezing your credit as quick and easy as possible. You’ll be asked to provide the following details:
- Full name
- Social Security number
- Date of birth
- Current address as well as previous addresses for the past two years
If you freeze your credit by phone or mail, you may be asked to answer some additional authentication questions to provide proof of your identity. You may be asked to provide a current utility bill or bank statement showing your name and full address and a copy of your driver’s license or passport.
When do you need a credit freeze?
Freezing your credit may be a good idea if you suspect your identity has been stolen or if you are notified that your personal information was part of a data breach. You may also consider a freeze if you receive unexpected bills or collection calls for accounts in your name that you didn’t open.
If you lost your Social Security card, other vital documents were lost or stolen, or you discovered unauthorized activity on your credit report, freezing your credit is an excellent way to provide peace of mind while you sort out the situation.
Some people keep their credit perpetually frozen and only thaw their credit when they know they will apply for new credit.
Parents or guardians of a child under 16 or of a person unable to make their own financial decisions can freeze the credit of the person under their care to help protect them from fraudsters. Freezing a child’s credit until they need to apply for a school or auto loan can be a great way to help prevent child identity theft.
If freezing your credit feels extreme, you can set up free fraud alerts through the credit bureaus instead. Fraud alerts require a lender to verify your identity before opening a new account but do not prevent them from viewing your credit history.
Fraud alerts generally last for one year, and you only have to contact one of the credit bureaus to place a fraud alert. The bureau you contact is required to notify the other two about setting a fraud alert on your credit report.
When do you need to lift a credit freeze?
Deciding when (or if) to lift a credit freeze is a personal choice. If you are applying for a new mortgage, auto or student loan, credit card, or another form of credit, you’ll need to lift the freeze on your credit reports so banks can review your files and determine your creditworthiness.
The process of removing a credit freeze is similar to enacting one. When you’re ready to unfreeze your credit, visit each credit bureau and log in to the account you created. You can temporarily release the freeze for a period (a day or week, etc.) or permanently remove it. You can also refreeze your credit once your loan or credit card is approved.
According to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, your security freeze should be removed within an hour of receiving the request by phone or website or within three business days of the credit bureaus receiving your request by mail.
If you are applying for a loan, you can ask the creditor which bureau they use and only unfreeze your credit with that particular agency. If you’re shopping around for the best rate on a loan, removing the freeze from all three credit bureaus may make the process faster and more convenient.
Pros and cons of a credit freeze
- Freezes do not affect your credit score
- Reduces the potential for fraudulent activity
- Credit freezes are free
- Freezes remain indefinitely, so you choose when (or if) to lift them
- It can be tedious to contact each credit bureau individually
- Credit freezes are not 100% effective in preventing fraud
- You have to plan before applying for new credit
Credit freezes can be placed on your account indefinitely and can help you reduce the chance of new fraudulent activity appearing on your credit report, but that doesn’t mean it’s a cure-all. Credit freezes do not protect you from identity theft or having your current credit card information used to make unauthorized purchases. Their purpose is to limit the use of your stolen identity to commit fraud against you.
A credit freeze is also more time-consuming than a fraud alert since you must contact each credit bureau individually to enact or remove a credit freeze. You may experience delays in being approved for new credit or loans because companies typically won't extend credit if one or more of your credit accounts is frozen.
A credit freeze might be a good step in protecting yourself if you’ve been a victim of identity theft, but it won't prevent a thief from using information already on the web.
Ensure you’re regularly checking your credit accounts for fraudulent activity by obtaining your annual free credit reports and practicing good cyber hygiene by frequently changing your passwords. Be careful about what you post on social media, and change the privacy settings on your devices to prevent issues.
Is freezing your credit a good idea?
If you know your information has been exposed to a data breach or are concerned about identity theft, freezing your credit is a good idea. A credit freeze can’t prevent identity theft, but it can help limit the fraud that criminals can commit against you by blocking access to those trying to open new credit accounts without your knowledge.
Do credit freezes hurt your credit?
A security or credit freeze will not hurt your credit score, and it also doesn’t impact the credit accounts you currently have. Credit freezes block lenders from processing credit inquiries on your credit files unless you remove the freeze, either permanently or temporarily.
Can I freeze my spouse’s credit?
In general, no, you cannot freeze your spouse’s credit. Both partners must freeze their separate credit files with the credit bureaus individually. If your spouse is active duty military or incapacitated and you are their authorized representative, you may be able to freeze their credit after verifying both of your identities and filling out forms with each bureau.
Identity theft occurs every 2 seconds in the U.S. Although freezing your credit does not guarantee that fraudsters won’t gain access to your information, it can help keep criminals from opening new accounts in your name without your knowledge.
Be sure to weigh the benefits and drawbacks before deciding to freeze your credit, and understand the implications. For additional information, check out our identity theft protection guide to help shield you and your family from potential threats.