Money

The credit cards with the best sign-up bonuses

Young woman in airplane shopping with credit card
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Getting a new credit card can be an easy way to pocket hundreds of dollars. In fact, one survey found that an enticing sign-up bonus is the primary motivation for a quarter of people who get new cards.

But with so many options to choose from, finding the card that's both right for you and has the largest possible bonus can be difficult. While many bonuses come in cash, others come in the form of points or miles, and the value of those rewards may vary.

To determine which cards currently offer the largest sign-up bonuses overall, CNBC Make It analyzed over 100 popular credit cards in the U.S. For each card, we assessed the value and ease of use of its bonus, as well as how much you need to spend in order to qualify.

Based on our findings, here are the top choices currently available across different types of cards.

Best business credit card bonus: $1,000

Chase Ink Business Preferred

Business cards often offer high credit limits and large sign-up bonuses, too. The Chase Ink Business Preferred promises 80,000 points to users who spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months. In terms of cash back, that's an $800 bonus, but points are worth 25 percent more when redeemed toward travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Portal. That means your bonus could be worth $1,000, if not more, if you transfer the points to a partner rewards program.

The annual fee, meanwhile, is relatively small: just $95 per year.

You need to own a small business of some sort to qualify for the card. In fact, the Ink Preferred is really a card designed to benefit small-business owners. It rewards spending on travel, shipping, advertising, and internet, phone and cable services with 3 points per dollar. On all other purchases, cardholders receive 1 point.

The card covers up to $600 in cell phone damage or theft protection three times per year, and cardholders can add employees to the account for free. The variable annual percentage rate is 17.74 to 22.74 percent based on your creditworthiness.

At a glance:

  • Bonus: 80,000 points if you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. That's $1,000 toward travel
  • Annual fee: $95
  • Rewards: 3 points on travel, shipping, online advertising, and internet, cable and phone services; 1 point on all other purchases
  • Variable APR: 17.74 to 22.74 percent based on your creditworthiness
  • How you redeem points: Transfer points to a partner rewards program, book travel directly through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, or redeem for cash or gift cards at a lower rate
  • Notable perks: Add employee cards at no cost; Up to $600 in cell phone damage or theft protection three times per year

Best travel credit card bonus: $750

Citi ThankYou Premier

The Citi ThankYou Premier offers a bonus of 60,000 points for cardholders who spend $4,000 within the first three months. That's $750 towards a flight, since points are worth 1.25 cents each when redeemed on airfare. If you transfer points to a partner rewards program, you could potentially get even more value.

The annual fee is $95, although it's waived the first year, and the variable APR is 16.24 to 25.24.

As for rewards, the Citi ThankYou offers 3 points for every dollar spent on travel and gas, plus 2 points on dining and entertainment, and 1 point on all other purchases.

The card has no foreign transaction fee, and it offers presale tickets and VIP packages to concerts and other events through Citi Private Pass. It also promises complimentary ShopRunner membership, which provides users with free two-day shipping at eligible retailers.

At a glance:

  • Bonus: 60,000 points if you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months. That's $750 towards airfare
  • Annual fee: $95, waived the first year
  • Rewards: 3 points on travel and gas stations; 2 points on dining and entertainment; 1 point on all other purchases
  • Variable APR: 16.24 to 25.24 percent based on your creditworthiness
  • How you redeem points: Transfer points to a partner rewards program, book travel directly through the ThankYou travel center, or redeem for cash or gift cards at a lower rate
  • Notable perks: No foreign transaction fee; Citi Private Pass; ShopRunner membership

Best cash-back credit card bonus: $500

The Capital One Savor

The newly revamped Capital One Savor offers a sign-up bonus of $500, if you spend $3,000 in your first three months with the card. That bonus is significantly larger than most of its popular cash-back competitors, which usually offer between $100 and $200 for signing up.

The Savor does charge a $95 annual fee, though Capital One waives it for the first year. And to further offset that fee, it offers some enticing rewards, including 4 percent cash back on dining, an offer that is matched only by the Uber Visa from Barclays.

The card also rewards spending on entertainment with 4 percent cash back, which applies to ticketed events such as concerts, movies and sports matches, and spending at grocery stores with 2 percent back. Plus, cardholders receive 1 percent on all other purchases.

Its variable APR is 16.24 to 25.24, and it has no foreign transaction fee when you use it outside the U.S.

At a glance:

  • Bonus: $500 if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening
  • Annual fee: $95, waived the first year
  • Rewards: 4 percent cash back on dining and entertainment; 2 percent cash back at grocery stores; 1 percent cash back on all other purchases
  • Variable APR: 16.24 to 25.24 percent based on your creditworthiness
  • How you redeem points: Account credit, reimburse purchases, or receive gift cards
  • Notable perks: No foreign transaction fee

Best no-annual fee credit card bonus: $300

Wells Fargo Propel

Like the Capital One Savor, Wells Fargo's Propel card was recently revamped, and it now offers the largest sign-up bonus among no-fee cards. Users get 30,000 bonus points as long as they spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months. That's worth $300 in the form of cash back, gift cards, donations to charity or travel through Go Far Rewards. If you also have the Wells Fargo Visa Signature card, you can redeem points on airfare for an even higher value.

Among cards with no annual fee, the Propel now has one of the more lucrative reward structures. Every dollar spent on gas, travel, dining and select subscription services is rewarded with 3 points. On all other purchases cardholders receive 1 point.

When used outside the U.S. the card requires no foreign transaction fee and, in the event of cell phone damage or theft, it offers $600 in protection twice per year, subject to a deductible.

At a glance:

  • Bonus: 30,000 bonus points if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
  • Annual fee: $0
  • Rewards: 3 points on travel, gas, dining and eligible online subscription service; 1 point on all other purchases
  • Variable APR: 14.24 to 26.74 percent based on your creditworthiness, after 12 months of 0 percent APR on purchases and balance transfers
  • How you redeem points: Redeem for cash back, gift cards, charitable donations or travel through Go Far Rewards
  • Notable perks: No foreign transaction fee; up to $600 in cell phone damage or theft protection twice per year

How we decided

CNBC Make It analyzed over 100 credit cards in the U.S. to uncover which offer the biggest sign-up bonuses in terms of their value upon redemption.

In the event of a tie, we considered the range of use of each bonus. Can it only be used toward airfare, for example, or can you get cash at the same high value? We also considered how much you need to spend to qualify for each bonus and the cost of each card's annual fee.

For instance, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, our runner-up for the best travel card overall, offers a 50,000 point bonus. Like the Citi ThankYou Premier, that's worth up to $750 in travel. But the card also requires a $450 annual fee, whereas the Citi ThankYou Premier only charges $95 per year, which is also waived the first year.

Similarly, the American Express Platinum has a bonus worth up to $750, but you need to spend $5,000 in three months to get it and the card charges an annual fee of $550.

Co-branded airline and hotel cards did not make our final list due to their often complex reward systems. Their points and miles are not usually redeemed at a consistent rate, which makes it difficult to estimate the value of their bonuses.

For brand-loyal customers these cards are still worth considering, though, because their bonus offers can be sizable. The Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard and the Marriot Rewards Premier Plus card are offering sign-up bonuses of 75,000 miles and points, respectively.

What you should know

If you're shopping for a new card based on the size of the bonus, it's important to keep a few things in mind. For one, you usually don't qualify for a bonus if your new card is the same brand as one that's already in your wallet. If you apply for the ThankYou Premier card, for example, but opened or closed the ThankYou Preferred or Citi Prestige card in the past two years, the bonus won't be available.

Also note that you won't get the bonus the minute you reach the spending threshold needed to qualify. It might take an additional couple of months after those first three months.

The size of bonuses are prone to change, so before you apply for a card, read the fine print on the application.

Finally, trying to game the system might work against you. Repeatedly applying for cards, collecting the bonus after a few months and then canceling them to avoid having to keep paying an annual fee could lower your credit score. That might cost you down the line when applying for a mortgage rate, or hurt your chances of qualifying for a credit card you like in the future.

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