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Best Cards

The best cash-back credit cards of September 2020

We analyzed 50 of the most popular cash-back credit cards using an average American's annual budget and digging into each card's perks and drawbacks to find the best of the best based on your spending habits.

The Discover offers on this page are no longer available via CNBC. As a result, Discover offers described on this page may be out of date.

When it comes to cash-back credit cards, it literally pays to do your homework. Using the right cash-back card strategically can earn you hundreds of dollars a year and thousands of dollars over time.

To help you find the right card, we analyzed 50 of the most popular cash-back cards 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.)

When choosing the cards in this roundup, we focused exclusively on cash-back offers, but of course there are lots of other cards to consider. Check out CNBC Select's picks of the best rewards cards for travel, online shopping, groceries and more.

Here are CNBC Select's picks for the top cash-back credit cards:

Winner

Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card

Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card
Information about the Alliant Cashback 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

    2.5% cash back on qualifying purchases (up to $250 in cash back rewards per billing cycle)

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $99, waived the first year

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Balance transfer fee

    3%

  • Regular APR

    12.24% to 22.24% variable

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    N/A

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • 2.5% cash back on all purchases (up to $250 in cash back rewards per billing cycle)
  • Annual fee is waived the first year
  • Simple cash-back program that doesn’t require activation or spending caps
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • $99 annual fee after the first year
  • No welcome bonus
  • No special financing offers
  • Estimated cash back earned after 1 year: $553
  • Estimated cash back earned after 5 years: $2,370

Who's this for? If you're looking for a first-in-class cash-back card, then this may be the card for you. The Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Card offers an industry-leading 2.5% cash back on all purchases (up to $250 in cash back rewards per billing cycle), which is ideal for anyone looking for an easy-to-use rewards card. There are no bonus categories or activation required, so this card is a simple way to maximize cash back on everyday spending.

This card doesn't have many of the bells and whistles that other cards on this list have, but it does offer a competitive 12.24% to 22.24% variable APR. Compared to other rewards cards, this is in the low range, which may be helpful if you happen to carry a balance month-to-month. (We recommend you always pay on time and in full.)

While this card has a strong cash-back program, it does come with a $99 annual fee (though it's waived the first year). It's not the highest when compared to other rewards cards, but you can find a range of cash-back cards with no annual fees.

You also have to become a member of Alliant Credit Union and open an account in order to qualify for this card. The easiest way to become a member is by supporting Alliant's partner charity, Foster Care to Success. You don't need to pay the charity directly — Alliant pays $5 on your behalf when you apply to join the credit union. Membership is also open to family members of current members, employees of partner organizations or those who live or work in qualifying towns and communities near Chicago's O'Hare International airport.

Overall, the numbers indicate that it's worth it to overcome these relatively minor obstacles in order to get the card's generous cash-back rate on all your purchases. If you don't want to make that trade off, though, there are a number of other strong cash-back options that don't require you to join a credit union.

Best for No Annual Fee

Citi® Double Cash Card

Citi® Double Cash Card
On Citi's secure site
  • Rewards

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

  • Welcome bonus

    No current offer

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% for the first 18 months on balance transfers; N/A for purchases

  • Regular APR

    13.99% - 23.99% variable on purchases and balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

    3%, minimum $5

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • 2% cash back on all purchases
  • Simple cash-back program that doesn't require activation or spending caps
  • One of the longest intro 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.
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $437
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,185

Who's this for? The Citi® Double Cash Card is a solid choice if you're looking to maximize your money without having to worry about rotating reward categories. Earn 1% cash back on purchases and 1% when you pay off your bill. That makes the card's appeal almost universal, as you won't have to miss out on reward opportunities.

There's no annual fee and an easy-to-use rewards program with no activation required and no limit to how much cash back you can earn. Cardholders can redeem cash back for checks or statement credits once they've earned $25 worth of cash back. Plus, if you forget to pay your card, Citi will waive your first late fee. (Though we recommend you pay off your credit card balance on time and in full each month to avoid interest charges.)

Although this card doesn't come with a welcome bonus, the Citi® Double Cash Card offers cardholders 0% APR for the first 18 months on balance transfers (then a 13.99% to 23.99% variable APR) initiated within 4 months of opening an account.

In addition to the cash-back rewards, there are a number of special cardmember programs, including Citi Entertainment℠, which gives cardholders first access to purchase tickets for thousands of concerts and events. The card also provides access to Citi® Identity Theft Solutions, a service that will help you if you're a victim of identity theft.

Best for Welcome Bonus

Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card
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

  • Regular APR

    15.49% to 25.49% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

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

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

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
  • Estimated cash back earned after 1 year: $496
  • Estimated cash back earned after 5 years: $1,882

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

Who's this for? If you're looking to earn bonus cash back during the first few months after account opening, consider the Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Card. This cash-back card has a generous welcome bonus with a low spending requirement: Earn a one-time $150 cash bonus once you spend $500 on purchases within the first three months from account opening. That's like earning 30% cash back.

Beyond the welcome bonus, the SavorOne Cash Rewards card has a well-rounded cash-back program offering 3% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on all other purchases.

Plus, this card has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees, which is perfect if you travel abroad. Cardholders can also benefit from insider access to premium experiences in dining, entertainment, sports and more, such as the iHeartRadio Music Festival and the Capital One JamFest.

Best for Students

Discover it® Student Cash Back

Discover it® Student Cash Back
Information about the Discover it® Student Cash Back has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
  • Rewards

    5% cash back in different categories (gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, Amazon and more) each quarter, up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Discover automatically matches all the cash back you earned at the end of your first year

  • Annual fee

    See terms

  • Intro APR

    See terms

  • Regular APR

    See terms

  • Balance transfer fee

    See terms

  • Foreign transaction fee

    See terms

  • Credit needed

    No credit history

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

Pros

  • Generous welcome bonus that doesn’t have minimum spending requirements
  • $20 Good Grade Reward when you maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA during the school year (for up to five consecutive years)

Cons

  • The cash-back program requires you to activate bonus categories in order to benefit from earning 5% cash back
  • Discover cards aren’t as widely accepted as cards from Mastercard or Visa
  • You must be a U.S. citizen and college student to apply for this card

Who's this for? Building credit while you're in college is a great way to establish good credit by the time you graduate. A student card, like the Discover it® Student Cash Back, can help you build credit while also earning cash back and benefiting from student-centric perks. To qualify, you need to meet a few requirements: attend a two- or four-year college, be over 18 and a U.S. citizen.

The Discover it® Student Cash Back has no annual fee and, upon enrollment, provides 5% cash back on rotating categories, currently Amazon.com, Target and Walmart.com (from October 2019 to December 2019), up to a $1,500 maximum each quarter (then 1%). All other purchases earn 1% cash back.

As an incentive to maintain good grades, Discover offers an annual $20 statement credit when you maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA (valid for up to five consecutive years). Plus, there are no foreign transaction fees, which makes it a good choice for students studying abroad.

If you need to finance textbooks or dorm room essentials, you can take advantage of the 0% APR for the first six months on new purchases. After the intro period, there's a 14.49% to 23.49% variable APR. We always recommend you pay your balance on time and in full in order to avoid interest charges.

Best for iPhone Users

Apple Card

Apple Card
Information about the Apple 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 goods or services purchased directly from Apple (including Apple retail stores, the Apple online store, the App Store, iTunes, Apple Music and other Apple-owned properties) on Uber and UberEats, at Walgreens and Duane Reade stores, on the Walgreens app and on Walgreens.com, in T-Mobile stores, at Nike, at Exxon and Mobil stations and at Panera Bread, 2% cash back on Apple Pay purchases and 1% cash back on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    10.99% to 21.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    None

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    N/A

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • No annual fee
  • 3% cash back on goods or services purchased directly from Apple, on Uber and UberEats, at Walgreens and Duane Reade stores, on the Walgreens app and on Walgreens.com and in T-Mobile stores and at Nike
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.
  • No late payment fee

Cons

  • Apple Pay isn’t accepted everywhere
  • Purchases with the physical card only earn 1% cash back
  • No special financing offers or welcome bonus
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $231
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $1,156

To calculate the rewards you could earn using your Apple Pay card, we assumed that cardholders will use Apple Pay for 70% of their purchases at a rate of 2% cash back, since 70% of all merchants accept Apple Pay, according to an Apple spokesperson. We also assumed the cardholder would use the physical Apple Card for the other 30% of their purchases at a rate of 1% cash back. You may earn a higher or lower return depending on your spending habits.

Who's this for? The Apple Card has generated a lot of buzz with its unique "Daily Cash" program and quirks of its titanium card. The card was created with the dedicated iPhone user in mind and has a cash-back program tailored to fans of Apple products and services.

You'll earn the most cash back (3%) on goods or services purchased directly from Apple (including Apple retail stores, the Apple online store, the App Store, iTunes, Apple Music and other Apple-owned properties), at Walgreens and Duane Reade stores, on the Walgreens app, on Walgreens.com, on Uber, UberEats, in T-Mobile stores, at Nike and at Exxon and Mobil stations. All purchases made with Apple Pay earn 2% cash back, and you earn 1% cash back when paying with the physical Apple Card.

One of the perks of this card is how easy it is to use the cash back you earn. Daily Cash is deposited at the end of every day, after purchases are posted to your account. Once you receive cash back, you're able to redeem it as a statement credit to your Apple Card balance, spend it like cash through Apple Pay, transfer it to a bank account or send it to friends via iMessage.

If you're attached to your iPhone and often use Apple Pay, this card lets you maximize cash back on Apple purchases. Plus, you can benefit from no fees whatsoever — no annual fees, foreign transaction fees or late payment fees. There is also a tool that shows you how much it costs to carry a balance, though we recommend you pay off your card in full and on time in order to avoid interest charges. Read our review of the Apple Card.

Best for Average Credit

Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card
Information about the Capital One® QuicksilverOne® 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

    1.5% cash back on all purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $39

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    26.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    None

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    Good/Fair

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • Unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases
  • Redeem cash back at anytime and for any amount
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.
  • Access a higher credit limit after making your first five monthly payments on time

Cons

  • $39 annual fee
  • 26.99% variable APR
  • No welcome bonus
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $293
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $1,464

Who's this for? Many of the best cash-back cards require good or excellent credit, but there are some cards for people with fair/average credit that offer good cash-back rates. Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card gives consumers a competitive 1.5% cash back on all purchases, with no limit on the amount of cash back you can earn. And cash back can be redeemed at any amount, without the typical $25 minimum some other cards set.

This card has a $39 annual fee, but the average American can earn $289 a year in cash back, which is more than enough to offset the fee. After five years, you could earn $1,444.

The Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card charges no foreign transaction fees and comes with travel accident insurance, auto rental collision damage waiver and 24-hour travel assistance services. Plus, you can get access to a higher credit limit after making your first five monthly payments on time.

FAQs

Types of cash-back credit cards

There are many types of credit cards that offer a range of perks and rewards programs, especially when it comes to cash-back credit cards. The three main types are flat-rate, bonus rewards and rotating category.

  • Flat-rate cash-back cards offer the same amount of cash back on all purchases.
  • Bonus rewards cash-back cards offer extra rewards on select purchases, such as gas, groceries, dining and travel.
  • Rotating category cash-back cards offer higher cash-back rates on certain categories that change every month or quarter.

Depending on your spending habits, you can benefit from having one or more of cash-back cards.

How to choose a cash-back credit card

It can be hard to select just one cash-back card since there are so many to choose from. In order to choose the best card for your needs, you'll need to consider several factors. Here are some tips on how to choose a credit card:

1. Consider the annual fee: While many cash-back cards have no, or low annual, fees, consider if you're willing to pay for your credit card.

2. Do you want to take advantage of a 0% APR: Many cash-back cards provide an introductory 0% APR period that can save you money on interest charges. If you have large purchases coming up, or debt to refinance, consider a card with no interest for over a year, such as the SavorOne card with an intro 0% APR for the first 15 months on purchases and balance transfers (then 15.49% to 25.49% variable APR).

3. Review your spending habits. Taking the time to consider how you use your card, can help you narrow down the type of cash back you want to earn. If you spend a lot at the supermarket, consider a grocery rewards card, such as the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. But if your spending habits are unclear, stick with a flat-rate cash-back card, like the Citi Double Cash.

How to compare cash-back credit cards

If you're having trouble narrowing down the best cash-back card for you, it can be helpful to compare credit cards. You should first list the benefits you're looking for and any deal breakers, such as an annual fee. Then make a list of cards that offer those benefits so you can do a side-by-side comparison. Check out our comparison table below.

For instance, if you want a flat-rate cash-back card, the Citi Double Cash and Alliant Cashback are both great choices. But if you're unwilling to pay an annual fee, the Double Cash is the better choice since it has no annual fee (Alliant charges $99, waived the first year). If the fee doesn't matter, then the Alliant card earns the most cash back (2.5% on up to $250 in cash-back rewards per billing cycle versus 2% on eligible purchases).

Making the most of your card

In order to make the most of your cash-back card, you should familiarize yourself with the various credit card benefits and fees. Review the annual fee, foreign transaction fees and the APR. Plus consider the cash-back rates and redemption options.

Once you're familiar with the terms of your card, you can begin to optimize them. Set up autopay to ensure payments are made on time and consider how you want to redeem cash back. If there's an automatic redemption option, that can be a simple way to redeem rewards.

And if you have multiple credit cards, make sure you know the best time to use each card. Let's say you have the Citi Double Cash Card and the Capital One Savor Rewards Credit Card. Use the Savor card for all your dining and entertainment expenses to earn 4% cash back, then use the Double Cash for all your other purchases to earn an effective 2% cash back.

Best cash-back credit cards

Category Winner Best for No Annual Fee Best Welcome Bonus Best for Students Best for iPhone Users Best for Average Credit
Credit CardAlliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit CardAlliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit CardCiti® Double Cash CardCiti® Double Cash CardCapital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit CardCapital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit CardDiscover it® Student Cash BackDiscover it® Student Cash BackApple CardApple CardCapital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit CardCapital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card
Estimated rewards earned after five years$2,370 $2,213$2,209 N/A$1,156$1,464
See below for our methodology Learn MoreInformation about the Alliant Cashback 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.Learn MoreOn Citi's secure siteLearn MoreInformation 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.Learn MoreInformation about the Discover it® Student Cash Back has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.Learn MoreInformation about the Apple Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.Learn MoreInformation about the Capital One® QuicksilverOne® 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.

Our methodology

To determine which cards will put the most money back in your pocket, CNBC Select evaluated 50 cash-back credit cards offered by the biggest banks, financial companies and credit unions that allow anyone to join. We compared each card on a range of features, including cash-back rewards, annual fee, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, balance transfer fee and foreign transaction fees, as well as factors such as required credit and customer reviews when available.

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 2019 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 $22,126 in retail spending. The budget includes six main categories: groceries ($5,174), gas ($2,218), dining out ($3,675), travel ($2,244), utilities ($4,862) and general purchases ($3,953). 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 cash back 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.

For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, 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.