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The best cash-back credit cards with no annual fee of November 2019

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Cash-back credit cards can be a great way to make money off your normal spending, but if you don't want to pay an annual fee in order to reap rewards, there are plenty of options without a yearly charge.

To help you get the right card for your needs, we analyzed 44 popular cash-back cards without an annual fee using an average American's annual spending budget and digging into each card's perks and drawbacks to find the best of the best based on your consumer habits. (See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best cards.)

It's no wonder these cards are the most popular choice among credit cardholders: Based on our calculations, you could earn more than $2,000 over five years if you choose one of the cards on this list.

Here are CNBC Select's top five cash-back credit cards with no-annual-fee:

Winner: Citi® Double Cash Card

Winner: Citi® Double Cash Card
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  • Rewards

    2% cash back: 1% on all purchases and an additional 1% after you pay your credit card bill

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% APR for the first 18 months on balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

    Either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater

  • Variable APR

    15.49% to 25.49%

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Estimated cash back earned after 1 year

    $437

  • Estimated cash back earned after 5 years

    $2,185

  • See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • 2% cash back on all your spending
  • Simple cash-back program that doesn’t require activation or spending caps
  • One of the longest intro APR periods for balance transfers at 18 months

Cons

  • No welcome bonus, so you can’t maximize rewards during the first few months of card opening
  • Minimum cash-back redemption of $25
  • 3% fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Who's this for? Cardholders who want to earn cash back without a lot of fuss should consider the Citi® Double Cash Card. This card set the standard for flat-rate cash-back cards when it hit the market in 2014 and is still one of the best on the market.

You can earn 2% cash back on all purchases — 1% when you make a purchase and an additional 1% when you pay your credit card bill. Cardholders can redeem the cash back for statement credits or checks once they've earned $25 worth of points.

Who's this for? Cardholders who want to earn cash back without a lot of fuss should consider the Citi® Double Cash Card. This card set the standard for flat-rate cash-back cards when it hit the market in 2014 and is still one of the best on the market.

You can earn 2% cash back on all purchases — 1% when you make a purchase and an additional 1% when you pay your credit card bill. Cardholders can redeem the cash back for statement credits or checks once they've earned $25 worth of points.

The card is also good for anyone looking to consolidate their debt: The Citi® Double Cash Card offers an introductory 0% APR for the first 18 months on balance transfers (then 15.49% to 25.49% variable APR). There is a 3% balance transfer fee (minimum $5), and if you have debt on another Citi-branded card, you can't transfer it to the Double Cash card.

This card isn't so great for travelers, as it comes with a 3% fee on all foreign transactions and cash back can't be redeemed for travel purchases.

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Runner-up: PenFed Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card

Runner-up: PenFed Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card
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Information about the PenFed Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
  • Rewards

    1.5% cash back on all purchases, 2% cash back on all purchases for PenFed Honors Advantage members

  • Welcome bonus

    $100 statement credit when you spend $1,500 in the first 90 days from account opening

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% for the first 12 months on balance transfers

  • Variable APR

    11.74% to 17.99%

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Balance transfer fee

    3%

  • Estimated cash back earned after 1 year

    $537*

  • Estimated cash back earned after 5 years

    $2,285 (this assumes you're a PenFed Honors Advantage member, earning 2% cash back)

  • See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • 2% cash back on all purchases for PenFed Honors Advantage members
  • Welcome bonus, which is hard to find among flat-rate cash-back cards with no annual fee
  • No bonus category activations or limits to the amount of cash back you can earn
  • Competitive 11.74% to 17.99% variable APR

Cons

  • 3% balance transfer fee
  • Credit union membership is required

Who's this for? If you don't mind doing a little extra work, the PenFed Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card can net you $100 more in cash back than the Citi® Double Cash Card in the first year thanks to its welcome bonus. Cardholders get 1.5% cash back on all purchases, but that increases to 2% cash back on every purchase if you're a PenFed Honors Advantage member.

PenFed is a credit union, so membership is required to open a card. Anyone can join by applying, opening a savings account with a $5 deposit and maintaining a $5 account balance.

Who's this for? If you don't mind doing a little extra work, the PenFed Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card can net you $100 more in cash back than the Citi® Double Cash Card in the first year thanks to its welcome bonus. Cardholders get 1.5% cash back on all purchases, but that increases to 2% cash back on every purchase if you're a PenFed Honors Advantage member.

PenFed is a credit union, so membership is required to open a card. Anyone can join by applying, opening a savings account with a $5 deposit and maintaining a $5 account balance.

To earn the higher cash-back rate, you need to become an Honors Advantage member in one of several ways: be in an active military service status, a member of the Reserves or National Guard, an honorably discharged U.S. military veteran or retired from such service; be the primary owner on both the credit card and checking accounts of any existing open PenFed product (excluding PenCheck Limited accounts); or open a new Access America checking account (which requires a daily balance or monthly direct deposit of $500 or more to waive the $10 monthly service fee).

Cardholders can redeem their cash back for statement credits, deposit it into their PenFed account or transfer it to another financial institution.

This card offers the same amount of cash back as two other cards on this list, but it comes out ahead in year one by also offering a welcome bonus: Earn a $100 statement credit when you spend $1,500 in the first 90 days from account opening. However, since you have to jump through a few extra hoops to earn 2% cash back, this card ranks behind the Citi® Double Cash Card.

*First year rewards total incorporates the points earned from the welcome bonus

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Information about the PenFed Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Best for Online Shopping: PayPal Cashback Mastercard®

Best for Online Shopping: PayPal Cashback Mastercard®
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Information about the PayPal Cashback Mastercard® has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
  • Rewards

    2% cash back on all purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Variable APR

    21.99% to 28.99%

  • Balance transfer fee

    None

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Estimated cash back earned after 1 year

    $437

  • Estimated cash back earned after 5 years

    $2,185

  • See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • Competitive 2% cash back on everything you purchase
  • Rewards can be redeemed at any amount, without the typical $25 minimum
  • Easily integrates with your PayPal account
  • No fee on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • Cash-back redemptions are limited to deposits to your PayPal account, your linked bank account or debit card
  • No introductory 0% APR for purchases or balance transfers
  • High APR range of 21.99% to 28.99%
  • No welcome bonus, so you can’t maximize rewards during the first few months of card opening

Who's this for? Fans of PayPal and frequent online shoppers will want to check out the PayPal Cashback Mastercard®. It's another 2% cash-back card that lets you earn the same amount of rewards on all purchases. A PayPal account is required to open this card, but if you don't have one yet, no worries — accounts are free.

This card links to your PayPal account, which is great if you're a fan of the platform since your rewards can be applied directly to your PayPal balance. But this may be a hassle for people who don't like PayPal or want other cash-back redemption options, such as gift cards and travel rewards. On the other hand, it's great for fans of online shopping, as PayPal is accepted at 19 million online retailers.

Who's this for? Fans of PayPal and frequent online shoppers will want to check out the PayPal Cashback Mastercard®. It's another 2% cash-back card that lets you earn the same amount of rewards on all purchases. A PayPal account is required to open this card, but if you don't have one yet, no worries — accounts are free.

This card links to your PayPal account, which is great if you're a fan of the platform since your rewards can be applied directly to your PayPal balance. But this may be a hassle for people who don't like PayPal or want other cash-back redemption options, such as gift cards and travel rewards. On the other hand, it's great for fans of online shopping, as PayPal is accepted at 19 million online retailers.

While the PayPal Cashback Mastercard® cash-back program is competitive and earns you the same amount of rewards as the Citi® Double Cash Card, this card doesn't offer any welcome bonus or introductory 0% APR offers, which is why it comes behind the Citi® Double Cash Card and the PenFed Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card.

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Information about the PayPal Cashback Mastercard® has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Best for Foodies: Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

Best for Foodies: Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card
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Information about the Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
  • Rewards

    3% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn a one-time $150 cash bonus once you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% introductory APR for the first 15 months that your account is open

  • Balance transfer fee

    3% for promotional APR offers; none for balances transferred at regular APR

  • Variable APR

    15.74% to 25.74%

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Estimated cash back earned after 1 year

    $550*

  • Estimated cash back earned after 5 years

    $2,152

  • See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • 3% cash back on dining and entertainment purchases and 2% at grocery stores
  • Ability to redeem rewards at any amount, unlike some other cards with $25 minimums
  • Competitive special financing offer on both new purchases and balance transfers
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • 3% fee for promotional balance transfer offers
  • Only consumers with good to excellent credit typically qualify

Who's this for? Foodies and entertainment junkies can maximize rewards with the Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card, which provides one of the highest cash-back rates on dining and entertainment purchases at 3%.

Plus, this card has one of the best welcome bonuses on the market: If cardholders spend $500 within the first three months of account opening, they earn a $150 bonus — that's like earning 30% cash back.

Who's this for? Foodies and entertainment junkies can maximize rewards with the Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card, which provides one of the highest cash-back rates on dining and entertainment purchases at 3%.

Plus, this card has one of the best welcome bonuses on the market: If cardholders spend $500 within the first three months of account opening, they earn a $150 bonus — that's like earning 30% cash back.

Additionally, cardholders who need to finance upcoming purchases or refinance debt can benefit from 15 months of no interest (after it's a 15.74% to 25.74% variable APR). Capital One notes on its site that this is a card for people with excellent credit. While there isn't a specific score given, excellent credit is usually 800 or above. (Read more about credit scores here.)

The Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card also offers a slew of other perks, such as access to exclusive entertainment events (concerts, food experiences, sporting events) and no foreign transaction fees (which is not a typical perk for a no-annual-fee cash-back card).

*First year rewards total incorporates the points earned from the welcome bonus

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Information about the Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Best for Groceries: Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

Best for Groceries: Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
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  • Rewards

    3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%), 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, 1% cash back on other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn back $150 after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card in your first 3 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% APR for the first 15 months on purchases and balance transfers (requested in the first 60 days from card membership)

  • Variable APR

    14.49% to 25.49%

  • Balance transfer fee

    Either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater

  • Foreign transaction fee

    2.7%

  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year

    $515*

  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years

    $1,973

  • See rates and fees and our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • 3% cash back at U.S. supermarket spending (up to $6,000 a year, then 1%)
  • Unlimited 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores
  • Amex Offers, which provide statement credits or opportunity to earn more rewards at select merchants
  • 0% APR during the first 15 months on new purchases and balance transfers

Cons

  • 2.7% fee on purchases made abroad
  • Not great for people who don’t regularly go grocery shopping

Who's this for? The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express is a competitive no-annual-fee card for grocery shoppers. You earn 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%).

You can also earn unlimited 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores. This is a nice added bonus since all other purchases earn a standard 1% cash back.

Who's this for? The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express is a competitive no-annual-fee card for grocery shoppers. You earn 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%).

You can also earn unlimited 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores. This is a nice added bonus since all other purchases earn a standard 1% cash back.

This card comes with access to Amex Offers, which provides statement credits or a chance to receive additional rewards when shopping at select retailers. A recent offer, for example, gave cardholders $20 back when they spent $75 or more at Boxed. These limited-time offers are location-based and additional terms apply.

You can also use this card to finance new purchases or transfer a balance thanks to the introductory 0% APR for the first 15 months from account opening. Once the intro period ends, a 14.49% to 25.49% variable APR applies.

This card is also a good no-annual-fee alternative to its counterpart, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, which offers 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%) — but with a $95 annual fee. *See rates and fees.)

*First year rewards total incorporates the points earned from the welcome bonus

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Our methodology

To determine which cards offer the best value, CNBC Select analyzed over 44 of the most popular cash-back credit cards available in the U.S. that don't come with an annual fee. We excluded cards that have no annual fee but require a membership fee.

We compared each card on a range of features, including cash-back rewards, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, balance transfer fee and foreign transaction fees, as well as factors such as required credit score and customer reviews when available. We also considered additional perks, application process and how easy it is for the consumer to redeem points.

CNBC Select teamed up with location intelligence firm Esri. The company's data development team provided the most up-to-date and comprehensive consumer spending data based on the 2018 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can read more about their methodology here.

Esri's data team created a sample annual budget of approximately $21,852 in retail spending. This budget is comprised of the most common spending categories, including groceries ($5,019), gas ($2,394), dining out ($3,365), travel ($2,154), utilities ($4,959) and general purchases ($3,961). General purchases include items such as housekeeping supplies, clothing, personal care products, prescription drugs and vitamins, and other vehicle expenses.

CNBC Select used this budget to estimate how much the average consumer would save over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases. All rewards total estimations are net the annual fee.

It's important to note the value of a point or mile varies from card to card and based on how you redeem them. When we calculated the estimated returns, we assumed that cardholders are redeeming points/miles for a typical maximum value of 1 cent per point or mile. (Extreme optimizers might be able to achieve more value.)

Our final picks are weighted heavily toward the highest five-year returns, since it's generally wise to hold onto a credit card for years. This method also avoids giving an unfair advantage to cards with large welcome bonuses.

While the five-year estimates we've included are derived from a budget similar to the average American's spending, you may earn a higher or lower return depending on your shopping habits.

Best cash-back cards with no annual fee

Category Credit Card Estimated rewards earned after five years
WinnerCiti® Double Cash Card$2,185
Runner-UpPenFed Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card$2,285
Best for Online ShoppingPayPal Cashback Mastercard®$2,185
Best for FoodiesCapital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card$2,152
Best for GroceriesBlue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express$1,973

For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, please click here.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.