There are so many credit cards available to consumers that it can be hard to choose the best card. There's no "one size fits all" credit card, but instead options for different types of people — whether you're a foodie, road warrior, traveler or someone looking to build credit. A little research can help you find a card that's specifically designed for your lifestyle.
To determine which cards offer the best value, CNBC Select analyzed 234 credit cards available in the U.S. that anyone can apply for. When comparing rewards cards, we used a sample budget based on the latest spending data available from the location intelligence firm Esri to break down how much money each card could net you over the course of five years. (See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best cards.)
The cards we selected also provide numerous additional benefits, such as annual statement credits, discounts at select retailers, insurance and more that make using a credit card truly worthwhile. These cards can be a great way to save money, especially since the average American spending budget is around $22,126 a year, according to the latest spending data available from Esri.
In order to get the most benefit from your card, you want to make sure you practice responsible credit behavior, such as paying off your balance on time and in full each month and avoiding overspending and falling into debt.
Below, CNBC Select rounded up the best credit cards of 2021 that can help you build credit, save on interest charges and earn you over $2,000 in cash back over five years.
Earn 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3% on dining (including takeout) and drugstores and 1.5% on all other purchases
$200 cash back after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening
0% for the first 15 months on purchases
14.99% to 23.74% variable on purchases and balance transfers
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater
3% of each transaction in U.S. dollars
Who's this for? Consumers who want a robust rewards card with no annual fee should consider the Chase Freedom Unlimited® Card. Cardholders earn 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (not including Target or Walmart purchases) on up to $12,000 spent in the first year, 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3% on drugstores and dining (including takeout) and 1.5% on all other purchases.
If you're looking to maximize your rewards, there's also a generous welcome bonus with a low spending requirement: Earn $200 cash back after you spend $500 on purchases in your first three months from account opening.
This card has no annual fee, and you can benefit from a 0% APR for the first 15 months on purchases (then 14.99% to 23.74% variable APR).
This card also offers 5% cash back on Lyft purchases through March 2022 and complimentary three months of DashPass with 50% off for the next nine months. Simply activate by December 31, 2021.
Check out CNBC Select's best cash-back credit cards.
4X Membership Rewards® points on restaurants (including takeout and delivery) and at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X), 3X points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com, 1X points on all other purchases
60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases within the first 6 months from account opening
See Pay Over Time APR
See rates and fees
Who's this for? If you love food and travel, the American Express® Gold Card could be the ideal rewards card for you. Whether you dine out or cook at home, this card earns a competitive 4X points per dollar spent at restaurants worldwide and 4X points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per year in purchases, then 1X). Plus, travelers can benefit from the 3X points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
The value of Membership Rewards® points varies depending on how cardholders redeem them. You can use them in a variety of ways, from paying with points at checkout at sites like Amazon to redeeming for gift cards or a statement credit to booking travel. See more on how points are calculated.
Cardholders also receive an annual dining credit of up to $120 ($10 a month) at participating partners, including Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Boxed and participating Shake Shack locations. There are also no foreign transaction fees.
This card does have a $250 annual fee, but it can be reduced to effectively $130 if you take advantage of the $120 dining credit each year. Then, the rewards you earn help further "pay" for the card.
Gold Card members can also participate in Amex Offers, where you can earn statement credits or bonus Membership Rewards® points at select retailers. For example, a recent offer for Wine.com states: "Spend $50 or more, get $10 back." These limited-time offers are location-based and additional terms apply.
3X points on dining out and ordering in; gas, rideshares and transit; flights, hotels, homestays and car rentals; and popular streaming services. 1X points on all other purchases
20,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months
0% APR for 12 months on purchases and qualifying balance transfers
14.49% to 24.99% variable on purchases and balance transfers
Introductory fee of 3% ($5 minimum) for 120 days, then 5% ($5 minimum)
Who's this for? This card offers a strong rewards program whether you're a frequent traveler or someone who spends most of their time closer to home (or, like many of us, are a combination of the two). The Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card is a well-rounded card that offers unlimited 3X points per dollar spent on dining out, ordering in, travel, and a number of streaming services, including Apple Music, Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, Sirius XM Radio Inc. and Spotify Premium.
Frequent travelers will like this card because it gives you points not just on flights and hotels but also car rentals, homestays and ridesharing services. There are no blackout dates on flights booked through Go Far® Rewards, and there are no foreign transaction fees.
There's also an impressive welcome bonus for a no-annual-fee card: Earn 20,000 points after you spend $1,000 within the first three months. That's the equivalent to $200 in cash.
The additional perks geared toward travelers are also worth noting. Cardholders can take advantage of lost luggage reimbursement, car rental loss and damage insurance, roadside assistance and 24/7 travel and emergency assistance.
This card also provides a year of no interest on purchases and balance transfers. (After the introductory period there's a 14.49% to 24.99% variable APR.) If you have expected upcoming expenses that you want to pay for over time, or you're looking to consolidate debt, the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card can help you finance debt without incurring interest charges.
Check out CNBC Select's best travel credit cards with no annual fee and best credit cards with no foreign transaction fees.
2% cash back: 1% on all purchases and an additional 1% after you pay your credit card bill
No current offer
0% for the first 18 months on balance transfers; N/A for purchases
13.99% - 23.99% variable on purchases and balance transfers
3%, minimum $5
Who's this for? The Citi® Double Cash Card is a straightforward rewards card that continues to offer one of the best flat-rate cash-back programs since it launched in 2014. Cardholders earn 2% cash back on all purchases — 1% when you make a purchase and an additional 1% when you pay your credit card bill.
There is no limit to the amount of cash back you can earn and you don't have to worry about activating bonus categories. Cash back can be redeemed for a statement credit or direct deposit.
This card is also a good choice for debt consolidation. There's a 0% APR for the first 18 months on balance transfers (then 13.99% to 23.99% variable APR). Just make sure you transfer balances within four months from account opening. There is a 3% balance transfer fee (minimum $5), which can be outweighed by the amount you save on interest. (See more on how to make the most of a balance transfer.)
Check out CNBC Select's best no annual fee credit cards.
0% for the first 18 months on purchases and balance transfers
14.74% to 24.74% variable
3%, minimum $5
Who's this for? The Citi Simplicity® Card offers one of the longest balance transfer intro periods at 0% for the first 18 months (then 14.74% to 24.74% variable APR). This is nearly two years to pay off debt, which can be helpful if you have a large balance or if your cash flow doesn't allow you to pay off debt within the 6-, 12-, 15-month time periods of other balance transfer cards.
This card has no annual fee, but it does come with one of the steeper balance transfer fees: 5% (minimum $5). But this can be worthwhile if you're paying high interest charges.
New cardholders have four months to complete their balance transfer (longer than the typical 60 to 90 days). While you have more time to complete a transfer, the intro APR period starts at account opening — so try to make the transfer as soon as possible to get the most benefit of the interest-free period.
This card also never charges late fees (though we always recommend you pay your balance on time and in full). There isn't a welcome bonus or a rewards program.
Check out CNBC Select's best balance transfer credit cards.
3X points on gas and grocery purchases and 1.5X points on all other purchases
Earn 10,000 points when you spend $1,500 within the first 90 days
N/A for purchases and balance transfers
8.49% to 15.49% variable
1.50%, $50 minimum
Who's this for? The Titanium Rewards Visa® Signature Card from Andrews Federal Credit Union tops our list thanks to the low interest rates, strong rewards program and no foreign transaction fees — all at no annual fee.
This card offers a variable APR of 8.49% to 15.49%. If you carry a balance, you can benefit from low interest charges compared to other cards that have high interest rates. Balance transfers do incur a 1.50% fee per transfer, with a $50 minimum.
Beyond interest rates, the Visa® Titanium Signature Rewards Card offers a generous rewards program: Earn 3X points on gas and grocery purchases and 1.5X points on all other purchases. Plus, there's a welcome bonus of 10,000 points after you spend $1,500 within the first 90 days.
In order to open this card, you need to join Andrews Federal Credit Union, but anyone can join. If you don't meet the qualification requirements, you can opt to join the American Consumer Council (ACC) for free with the promo code "Andrews."
Check out CNBC Select's best low interest credit cards.
Earn 2% cash back at Gas Stations and Restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases – automatically.
Dollar-for-dollar match of all cash back earned the first year
N/A on purchases
3% intro balance transfer fee, up to 5% fee on future balance transfers (see terms)*
New / Rebuilding
Who's this for? The Discover it® Secured is a well-rounded secured card that offers many benefits that are typically found with unsecured cards. Cardholders can earn cash back, receive a generous welcome bonus, use the card overseas without incurring added fees and more — all for no annual fee.
Cardholders earn a competitive 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, then 1%. Plus, you can earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases automatically. The welcome bonus is also unique: For new card members in the first year only, Discover will automatically match all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year. So, if you earn $50 cash back at the end of the first year, Discover will give you an additional $50.
This card requires a minimum $200 security deposit, which is fairly standard for secured credit cards. It stands out from the crowd because it gives users a clear path to upgrading to an unsecured card (and getting their deposit back). Starting at eight months from account opening, Discover will automatically review your credit card account to see if they can transition you to an unsecured line of credit and return your deposit. This takes the guesswork out of wondering when you'll qualify for an unsecured credit card.
Check out CNBC Select's best secured credit cards.
1% cash back on eligible purchases right away and up to 1.5% cash back after making 12 on-time monthly payments; 2% to 10% cash back from select merchants
12.99% to 26.99% variable
Fair, Good, No Credit
Who's this for? The Petal 2 "Cash Back, No Fees" Visa Credit Card, issued by WebBank Member FDIC, is a unique card that takes a different approach to the credit card application process. Instead of judging your creditworthiness solely based on credit history, Petal may ask you to link bank accounts during the application process. Then, WebBank uses Petal's technology to analyze your bank statements and other data, such as bill payments and earnings, to determine your eligibility.
This is especially beneficial for applicants who may not have any credit history. However, if you do have a credit history, that does factor into the credit decision.
The Petal 2 Visa Credit Card is one of the few cards that charge zero fees: no annual fee, no late payment fee and no foreign transaction fees. And it stands out for consumers trying to build credit because there's no security deposit required.
It also offers a rewards program with 1% cash back on eligible purchases right away, which can increase up to 1.5% cash back after you make 12 on-time monthly payments. This is not only a nice perk, but a great way to encourage responsible behavior. Cardholders also earn 2% to 10% cash back from select merchants.
Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places each quarter like Amazon.com, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and when you pay using PayPal, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases – automatically.
Dollar-for-dollar match of all cash back earned the first year
0% for 6 months on purchases
12.99% - 21.99% Variable
3% intro balance transfer fee, up to 5% fee on future balance transfers (see terms)*
Fair / New to Credit
Who's this for? The Discover it® Student Cash Back is a well-rounded card that offers college students enrolled in a two- or four-year college the chance to build credit, while earning rewards and receiving student-centric benefits. You must be over 18 and a U.S. citizen to apply.
Upon activation, cardholders can earn 5% cash back on rotating categories (such as Amazon.com, gas stations or restaurants), up to a $1,500 maximum each quarter (then 1%). All other purchases earn unlimited 1% cash back automatically.
This card encourages you to maintain good grades by offering an annual $20 Good Grades Reward statement credit each school year when you maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA (valid for up to five consecutive years).
There is also an introductory 0% APR for six months on new purchases — perfect for financing dorm room essentials or textbooks. After the intro period, there's a 12.99% to 21.99% variable APR.
Check out CNBC Select's best credit cards for college students.
10X points on Lyft rides through March 2022, 3X points on travel worldwide (immediately after earning your $300 annual travel credit), 3X points on dining at restaurants including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out, 1X point per $1 on all other purchases
50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening — worth up to $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
16.99% to 23.99% variable
5%, minimum $5
Who's this for? The Chase Sapphire Reserve® is geared toward foodies and frequent travelers who are looking for luxurious perks, such as free airport lounge access and complimentary hotel room upgrades. Cardholders earn a competitive 3X points on dining and travel worldwide. Based on CNBC Select's calculations, we found the average American using this card could earn an estimated $165 per year in rewards for dining purchases alone (assuming you redeem rewards for travel via Chase Ultimate Rewards®, receiving 50% more value).
The value of Chase rewards points varies depending on how you use them. If you redeem points for cash and gift cards, each point is worth $.01, which means that 100 points equals $1 in redemption value. (See more on how the value of points is calculated.)
This card has a unique benefit where all points are worth 50% more when redeemed for travel via Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 50,000 points are worth $750 redeemed toward airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. This perk is a great way to get the most value for your rewards.
While this card has a robust rewards program, it also comes with a steep $550 annual fee. All the card's added credits and benefits provided by Chase can help offset the annual cost. The $300 annual travel credit effectively reduces the annual fee to $150. Cardholders can take advantage of a Priority Pass™ Select membership that has a value of about $429. They also get a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit of up to $100 every four years.
Check out CNBC Select's best credit cards for restaurants and dining out.
5X points on gas, 3X points on groceries, 1X points on all other purchases
$100 statement credit when you spend $1,500 in the first 90 days from account opening
0% promotional rate for the first 12 months on balance transfers
13.49% to 17.99% variable on purchases; 17.99% non-variable on balance transfers
Who's this for? Among the cards we analyzed, the PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Card currently offers the highest rewards rate at gas stations with 5X points per dollar spent. If you want to maximize rewards at gas stations, this card can earn the average American $111 annually.
This card has no annual fee, so road warriors can maximize their savings. In addition to earning high rewards at gas stations, cardholders also benefit from unlimited 3X points at grocery stores.
PenFed is a credit union, so membership is required to open the PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Card. Anyone can join by completing a few extra steps: You need to apply, open a savings account with a $5 deposit and maintain a $5 account balance.
Check out CNBC Select's best credit cards for gas.
6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%), 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions, 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations, 3% cash back on transit including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more and 1% cash back on other purchases
Earn a $250 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card within the first three months
0% for the first 12 months on purchases, N/A for balance transfers
13.99% to 23.99% variable
Who's this for? Frequent grocery shoppers will be happy to learn the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express offers the highest cash-back rate at U.S. supermarkets at 6% (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%). The average American can earn $310 in cash back each year when they do their shopping at qualifying supermarkets.
If you want to maximize cash back on groceries, this card is for you. In addition to high grocery rewards, there's an unlimited 6% cash back on select streaming subscriptions, unlimited 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations, unlimited 3% cash back on transit including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more and 1% cash back on all other purchases.
Cardmembers can also take advantage of Amex Offers, where users earn a statement credit or additional cash back at select retailers. For example, a recent offer gave you $25 back each month (up to three times), if you spent $70 or more a month on Sun Basket meal kit delivery. These limited-time offers are location-based and additional terms apply.
This card does come with a $95 annual fee, but it can be offset by the cash back you earn and discounts you can get through the Amex Offers.
Check out CNBC Select's best credit cards for grocery shopping.
4% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on all other purchases
Earn a one-time $300 cash bonus once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months from account opening
0% for the first 12 months on purchases; N/A on balance transfers
15.99% to 24.99% variable
3% for promotional APR offers; none for balances transferred at regular APR
Who's this for? Sports fans, movie buffs and adventure seekers will all find a common reason to like the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card: unlimited 4% cash back on entertainment purchases. Compared to other rewards cards, this is the highest unlimited rewards rate on entertainment spending, whether you're buying movie tickets, taking a family trip to the zoo or spending the evening bowling with friends.
Through January 2022, cardholders who buy tickets through Vivid Seats, a ticket resale site, can take advantage of 8% cash back.
Cardholders can also benefit from exclusive access to entertainment events, such as the iHeartRadio Music Festival and the Capital One JamFest.
Beyond entertainment perks, there's also 4% cash back on dining, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on all other purchases. Plus, you can enjoy foodie-centric perks, such as exclusive access to premium reservations with OpenTable.
This card does come with a $95 annual fee, but it's waived during the first year from account opening and can be offset by the cash back you earn.
Check out CNBC Select's best credit cards for entertainment spending.
5X miles on hotel and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel℠, 2X miles per dollar on every other purchase
60,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases within 3 months of account opening
N/A for purchases and balance transfers
17.24% to 24.49% variable on purchases and balance transfers
3% for promotional APR offers; none for balances transferred at regular APR
Who's this for? The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card offers the best rewards rate on select hotel purchases: Earn 5X miles on hotel and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel℠ and 2X miles per dollar spent on all other spending, which is a great flat rate. While Venture does come with a $95 annual fee, that's low compared to some other rewards cards, with some annual fees up to $550.
In addition to rewards, every four years cardholders receive a credit for a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application, up to $100. If you travel often, this is a great perk that can save you time and money.
This card has no foreign transaction fees and comes with a bunch of additional travel perks, such as travel accident insurance, 24-hour travel assistance services and an auto rental collision damage waiver.
Check out CNBC Select's best credit cards for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
Having a credit card is an important piece of your financial profile, but with so many options available, it can be hard to find the best one for your needs. Here are some common questions to ask yourself so you can decide what's the best credit card for you.
Do you want to earn rewards?
And if you want to earn rewards, what specific categories are most important to you?
Rewards credit cards come in all shapes and sizes. If you want to maximize rewards in specific categories, check out cards offering bonus rewards on gas, groceries, restaurants, entertainment, travel and more. Or keep it simple and opt for a flat-rate cash-back card.
Are you looking to get out of debt?
If you're carrying a balance on a high interest credit card, consider transferring it to a balance transfer credit card offering no interest for up to 21 months. There are even cards with no balance transfer fees.
Do you want to build credit?
Do you travel abroad?
A credit card with no foreign transaction fees is essential to save you the typical 3% fee per purchase made outside the U.S. Also, it can be a good idea to consider cards that waive Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees.
To determine which cards offer the best value, CNBC Select analyzed 234 of the most popular credit cards available in the U.S. We compared each card on a range of features, including rewards, 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. We also considered additional perks, the application process and how easy it is for the consumer to redeem points.
We also estimated 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. 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.
For balance transfer cards, we used a Bankrate calculator to tally the interest rates and fees you could incur if you transferred $6,028, the average balance Americans carry on their credit cards in 2019, according to Experian.
If the average consumer with a $6,028 balance on their credit card pays $200 each month, they will spend $1,911 in additional interest, assuming the average 17.7% APR. And it will take them 40 months — more than three years — to pay off that debt.
With four of the five cards featured on this list, if you take full advantage of the intro APR period and pay $200 per month, you'll pay less than $450 in interest and cut your repayment time in half to 20 months. That's a significant savings.
For the cards that offered a rewards program, we also estimated how much cash back you might earn over a five year period. 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 points/miles for a typical maximum value of 1 cent per point or mile. (Extreme optimizers might be able to achieve more value.)
When choosing the best balance transfer card, we focused on the card that provides consumers with the cheapest way to pay off their debt rather than the number of rewards they could potentially earn. When you're in credit card debt, your primary focus should be repayment. Earning rewards should be seen as a bonus, and you don't want to spend beyond your means in order to earn points.
The five-year rewards total and the interest rate and fees estimates are derived from a budget similar to the average American's spending and debt. You may earn a higher or lower return depending on your spending habits.
For rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Discover it® Secured, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Discover it® Student Cash Back, please click here.
Information about the Citi Simplicity® Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
Petal 2 Visa Credit Card issued by WebBank, Member FDIC.