Lots of readers have been asking me lately about their credit report.

Here are some typical questions:

* How do I get my credit report?

* Is there a charge for my credit report?

* How long does bad information stay on my credit report?

Before I get to these questions, perhaps I need to explain what a credit report is. Your credit file primarily exists to provide employers, lenders, landlords, utilities and now insurance companies an account of how you pay your bills and repay loans. Think of it as your bill-paying report card.

Facts in your credit report include:

* Personal information such as your full name, any previous names you may have used, current and previous addresses, Social Security number, current and past employers, and, if applicable, similar information about your spouse.

* Details about loans and retail and credit card accounts, including account numbers. The report will identify your accounts by type, such as a mortgage, student loan, or revolving credit or installment loan. You will see the date you opened an account, your credit limit or the loan amount, any loan co-signers and, most important, your payment history.

* A listing of any court actions such as a bankruptcy filed by you, or tax liens or monetary judgments against you.

* A listing of all parties that have requested your credit report, including any inquiries you've made.

Your creditors supply the information in your file. The bureaus compile the information and sell it to businesses authorized to look at your file. Information in your credit report is used to evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, employment and other purposes, such as leasing an apartment.

Now for the first question. How do you get a copy of your credit report? All you have to do is contact the three major credit bureaus by telephone, in writing or via the Internet. The three major credit bureaus are:

* Equifax (www.equifax.com), P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, Ga. 30374; 800-685-1111.

* Experian (www.experian.com), P.O. Box 2002, Allen, Tex. 75013; 888-397-3742.

* TransUnion (www.transunion.com), P.O. Box 1000, Chester, Pa. 19022; 800-888-4213.

As for the second question -- is there a charge for your credit report? Yes, if you order it from the bureaus. You will pay up to $9 for each. But you can get a free credit report if:

* You are a resident of Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey or Vermont. Residents of those states may receive one free credit report per year from each credit bureau. If you are a resident of Georgia, you may receive two free copies of your credit report each year from the credit bureaus.

* You have been denied credit, insurance or employment within the past 60 days as a result of your credit history.

* You can certify in writing that you are unemployed and intend to apply for employment in the 60-day period beginning on the date you made the certification.

* You are a recipient of public welfare assistance or you have reason to believe that your file at the agency contains inaccurate information because of fraud.

There are a number of services that offer a three-in-one report with information from all three credit bureaus. These consolidated reports cost $30 to $40.

Let me do the math for you. If you order your report separately from each bureau at $9 each, that comes to $27, a savings of about $13.

But the all-in-one reports do a nice job of providing easy-to-read data with side-by-side information from all three bureaus. These all-in-one reports also eliminate the need for you to supply all your personal information three different times. For that, it may be worth the extra money. And the consolidated report often includes your credit score, which is a three-digit number used to determine your creditworthiness.

How long do the credit bureaus keep credit information in your file?

Positive information can remain indefinitely. So can a credit transaction involving a principal amount of $150,000 or more (for most people, a mortgage). However, negative information has to be removed after a certain time, depending on what it is. Here's how long:

* Bankruptcies: Ten years from settlement date.

* Civil suits and civil judgments: Seven years from the filing date.

* Late payments: Seven years from the date of original delinquency.

* Accounts turned over to a collection agency: Seven years.

* Paid tax liens: Seven years.

Please keep in mind that your credit report is a work in progress. Information is being added all the time. That's why you should review your credit report for inaccuracies or omissions at least once a year. This is particularly important if you are considering making a major purchase, such as a car or home.

While Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. Readers can write to her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or by e-mail at singletarym@washpost.com.