A credit freeze is one of the most effective ways to prevent new accounts from being opened by someone using your stolen personal data. It’s free, and it doesn’t impact your credit score—and when it’s time to lift it, “unfreeze” isn’t your only option. You can also thaw your credit when if you need to legitimately apply for new credit yourself. Here’s what to know about freezing, unfreezing, and thawing your credit.

How to freeze your credit

Freezing your credit is relatively simple and free for everyone through the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Here are the steps:

Visit each credit bureau’s website and request a freeze. You’ll need to provide some personal information to verify your identity.

Each bureau will assign a personal identification number (PIN) to use when you want to lift the freeze temporarily or permanently.

That’s it! Your credit will be frozen at all three bureaus, preventing new creditors from accessing your report unless you actively allow it.

Thawing vs. unfreezing credit

To unfreeze your credit, you have to put in a request with each major credit bureau. If you make the request online or by phone, the bureaus should lift the freeze within an hour. When you formally unfreeze your credit, this leaves your report open unless you request another credit freeze.

But “unfreeze” isn’t your only option: When you’re ready to apply for new credit like a loan or credit card, you can “thaw” your frozen credit rather than unfreezing it permanently. A thaw temporarily lifts the freeze for a set period, such as a week, after which it will automatically re-freeze on its own without any additional action needed on your part.

To thaw frozen credit, simply contact the bureau(s) and use your PIN to request a temporary thaw, specifying the time period. This allows creditors to access your report, after which it re-freezes automatically until you thaw it again.

While freezing credit won’t completely prevent identity theft, it’s one of the best ways to proactively protect yourself and minimize the potential damage of stolen personal information. Given that it’s now free and convenient, there’s little reason not to take advantage of this added security. In addition to freezing your credit, you’re entitled to free credit reports every week from each bureau, so it’s easier to monitor your report regularly.