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Many people focused on shrinking their household expenses during the pandemic, and one obvious way to cut costs is to eliminate the annual fee on your credit card. Fortunately, competition on the no-annual-fee card front has intensified in recent years, and right now there’s a plethora of fee-free cards out there that offer compelling rewards and even sign-up bonuses.
CNN Underscored’s comprehensive credit card methodology compares every aspect of each no-annual-fee credit card to our “benchmark credit card” — the Citi® Double Cash Card — to determine which cards can potentially bring you maximum value in addition to lowering your balances. So check out our list of the best credit cards with no annual fee to decide which one will best fit your needs.
Citi Double Cash Card: Best for flat-rate cash back
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express: Best for groceries
Chase Freedom Flex: Best for dining
Citi Rewards+® Card: Best for small purchases
Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best for flexible rewards
U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card: Best for 0% interest on purchases
Discover it® Cash Back: Best sign-up bonus
Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card: Best no-annual-fee travel card
Why did we select these cards as our best no-annual-fee credit cards for 2021? Dive into the details of each card with us, and see how they stack up.
Why it’s great in one sentence: A quick glance at the features of the Citi Double Cash Card makes it clear why it’s our benchmark card. First, it has no annual fee, so it doesn’t cost you money each year just for the privilege of having it. Second, it earns 2% cash back on everything — 1% when you make the purchase and another 1% as you pay it off.
This card is right for: People who want a best-in-class return from a no-annual-fee card, with no hoops to jump through or bonus categories to remember.
Earn 2% cash back on everything — 1% when you make a purchase and another 1% when you pay it off. 18-month 0% introductory APR on balance transfers (13.99%-23.99% variable afterward). Expert users can convert the cash back to Citi ThankYou travel points at a ratio of 1 cent per point when combined with the Citi Prestige® Card or Citi Premier℠ Card. No annual fee. Sign-up bonus: None.
What we like about the Citi Double Cash: On top of having no annual fee, the Citi Double Cash has one of the best and most straightforward earning rates across all credit cards. You’ll earn 2% in cash back — 1% when you buy something, and another 1% when you pay it off — on every single purchase you make, with no caps of any kind.
For people who don’t spend a lot of money in a specific bonus category such as dining, groceries or travel, earning flat-rate cash back probably makes the most sense, and there’s really no other major credit card available today that offers as high of an ongoing flat-rate return on every single purchase without an annual fee.
The Citi Double Cash has one of the best flat-rate cash back returns of any credit card.
New Citi Double Cash card holders can also take advantage of a 0% introductory APR on balance transfers for 18 months. It’s important to note that after the introductory APR expires, you’ll pay a variable 13.99%-23.99% (depending on your creditworthiness) on the remaining balance, so you’ll want to be sure to either pay off your debt in full or transfer it to another card before the 18 months end.
For most people, using the Citi Double Cash to earn and redeem cash back will be as far as they need to go. But advanced credit card users also have the ability to convert cash back earned with the Double Cash into Citi ThankYou Rewards travel points, with $1 in cash back equal to 100 ThankYou points.
One thing that could be better: You won’t find any bonus categories on the Citi Double Cash, and that’s the downside of simplicity. So if you routinely make a large number of purchases in a particular category, you may find another credit card that offers a bonus for those purchases is a better choice for you.
Why it’s our “benchmark” credit card: The ease of use and straightforward top-of-market cash-back earning rate of the Citi Double Cash are why CNN Underscored currently considers the Double Cash as our “benchmark” credit card. We use it as our benchmark card to compare the features of other credit cards and determine if they’re better or worse overall.
You can read more about our benchmark credit card concept in our credit card methodology guide, or dig into our complete review of the Citi Double Cash.
Learn more and apply for the Citi Double Cash Card.
Why it’s great in one sentence: The Blue Cash Everyday card offers a generous introductory interest rate on purchases for 15 months while also earning 3% cash back at US supermarkets (up to $6,000 annually, then 1%) and 2% back at US gas stations, all with no annual fee (see rates and fees).
This card is right for: People who want to temporarily avoid high interest rates on their purchases, but who also spend a significant amount of their budget at US supermarkets and gas stations.
Earn 3% cash back at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%). Earn 2% cash back at US gas stations and select US department stores. Earn 1% cash back on everything else. Cash back is earned in the form of reward dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit. 0% APR on all purchases for the first 15 months (13.99% to 23.99% variable afterward). Car rental loss and damage insurance included. No annual fee. Terms apply. Welcome bonus: Earn $100 cash back as a statement credit after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card in the first six months after opening the account, plus 20% back on Amazon purchases in the first six months of card membership, up to $150 back.
What we like most about the Blue Cash Everyday: For many Americans, a significant portion of the monthly family budget goes to supermarket and gas station expenses. The no-annual-fee Blue Cash Everyday card dials up the bonus cash back on those two categories, creating a go-to in your wallet for two routine purchases.
The card also pairs its bonus categories with an introductory 0% APR on purchases for the first 15 months after you open the account, making it a solid choice if you’re trying to make ends meet. But you’ll want to make sure your debt is paid off by the end of the intro period, as the APR jumps to a variable 13.99% to 23.99% afterward.
You’ll also find a nice welcome bonus with a relatively small minimum spending requirement on the Blue Cash Everyday, and even car rental loss and damage insurance, to top off a fairly complete package.
Earn 3% at US supermarkets (up to $6,000 a year, then 1%) with the Blue Cash Everyday card.
One thing that could be better: Bonus cash back isn’t earned on purchases outside of the US with the Blue Cash Everyday, and there’s a 3% foreign transaction fee on top of that (see rates and fees), though that’s unlikely to be an issue at the moment with international travel still mostly restricted due to the pandemic.
You can also earn twice as much cash back at US supermarkets if you’re willing to forgo a few months of the introductory offer on purchases by getting the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express instead of the Blue Cash Everyday.
The Blue Cash Preferred has a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95 thereafter (see rates and fees). But it earns 6% cash back at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year (then 1%). The downside is that its introductory offer on purchases runs for only 12 months instead of 15 months.
Related: Amex Blue Cash Preferred vs. Blue Cash Everyday: Which is best for you?
Where it beats our benchmark card: Welcome bonus, an introductory interest rate on purchases, car rental damage coverage.
Where our benchmark card is better: The Citi Double Cash has an introductory interest rate on balance transfers, and its cash back can be converted to Citi ThankYou travel points when combined with the Citi Prestige or Citi Premier card.
Learn more about the Blue Cash Everyday Card.
Why it’s great in one sentence: Along with a trio of permanent bonus categories that includes an impressive 3% cash back on dining and eligible food delivery services, the no-annual-fee Chase Freedom Flex card earns 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in rotating bonus categories each quarter.
This card is right for: People who want a card that earns bonus cash back both for dining and in rotating categories.
Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in rotating bonus categories each quarter you activate. Earn 3% cash back on dining — including eligible food delivery services — plus 3% at drugstores and 5% on travel purchases made through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Earn 1% cash back on all other purchases. Cash back can be transferred to airline and hotel travel programs when combined with select Chase Ultimate Rewards cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred. 0% APR on all purchases for the first 15 months (14.99%-23.74% variable afterward). No annual fee. Sign-up bonus: Earn $200 bonus cash back after you spend $500 on purchases in your first three months after opening the account.
What we like most about the Chase Freedom Flex: While you might get the Chase Freedom Flex for its sign-up bonus, it’ll likely become a staple in your purse or wallet thanks to its permanent bonus categories that includes 3% cash back on dining and food delivery services, and its perpetual rotating 5% bonus categories on useful purchases like groceries and gas.
The current Chase Freedom Flex bonus categories for April through June are gas stations and home improvement stores. That means you could earn as much as $75 in bonus cash back whether you’re making improvements to your work-from-home space, or back on the road in your car.
Home improvement stores is one of the rotating bonus categories on the Chase Freedom Flex this quarter.
Plus, the Chase Freedom Flex grows with you. If you apply for a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve card down the road, you can convert the cash back you earn with the Chase Freedom into Ultimate Rewards points, which can be redeemed for travel at the Chase travel portal, or transferred to Chase’s airline and hotel partners to extract potentially even more value from them.
One thing that could be better: It’s hard to gripe about the Chase Freedom Flex, but you should be mindful of its pesky 3% foreign transaction fee, and the fact that you must remember to activate the bonus categories each quarter in order to earn 5% cash back on them.
Where it beats our benchmark card: Sign-up bonus, introductory rate on purchases for 15 months.
Where our benchmark card is better: The Citi Double Cash has an introductory rate on balance transfers.
Learn more and apply for the Chase Freedom Flex.
Why it’s great in one sentence: If you use your credit card for a lot of small purchases — meaning under $10 — then the “round-up” feature of the Citi Rewards+ will earn you extra rewards, and its introductory offer on new purchases can lower your costs if you have to carry debt.
This card is right for: People looking to earn more points for small purchases, while also needing to pay for some expenses over time.
Earn 2 ThankYou points for every dollar you spend at supermarkets and gas stations for the first $6,000 per year (1x ThankYou point thereafter). Earn 1 ThankYou point for every dollar on all other purchases. All purchases automatically round up to the nearest 10 points. 10% points back for the first 100,000 points you redeem per year. Points can be transferred to airline and hotel partners when combined with the Citi Prestige or Citi Premier card. 0% APR on all purchases for the first 15 months (13.49% to 23.49% variable afterward). 0% APR for 15 months on balance transfers made in the first four months after opening the account (13.49% to 23.49% variable afterward). No annual fee. Sign-up bonus: Earn 15,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in purchases in your first three months.
What we like most about the Citi Rewards+: There are three features of the Citi Rewards+ that make it worthy of consideration. First, the rewards you earn for every purchase made with the card round up to the nearest 10 points. That won’t make a huge difference on expensive items, but a $2 pack of gum earns 10 points instead of 2 points, a 400% improvement. Lots of these little transactions can add up quickly.
Second, when you redeem points, you’ll get 10% of your points back on up to 100,000 points every year. That means if you use 2,500 points to redeem for a $25 gift card, you’ll soon see 250 points back in your account to redeem again down the line. Since you can get up to 10,000 points back each year, that’s effectively up to an extra $100 in points to spend on gift cards.
And third, although the Citi Rewards+ earns points that can be redeemed for gift cards, cash back or through Citi’s Shop with Points program, if you also have a Citi Premier or Citi Prestige Card, you can move your points to your other card and open up a whole new world of options, including redeeming points for travel down the line or transferring them to Citi’s airline partners.
Move points from the Citi Rewards+ to one of the premium Citi ThankYou cards and redeem them for a future vacation getaway.
One thing that could be better: If you’re not pairing the Citi Rewards+ with one of the premium Citi ThankYou cards, the most value you can get for your points is 1 cent apiece when redeeming for gift cards. If you redeem points for cash back, the value is only 0.5 cents per point, in which case you’d be better off with the flat-rate cash back of our benchmark Citi Double Cash card or one of the other 0% interest cards on our list.
Where it beats our benchmark card: Valuable sign-up bonus, 10% points back on redemptions up to 100,000 points per year, 15-month introductory offer on purchases.
Where our benchmark card is better: The Citi Double Cash has a longer introductory interest rate period of 18 months on balance transfers.
Learn more and apply for the Citi Rewards+ Card.
Why it’s great in one sentence: If you’re on the fence about whether you’d prefer to rack up cash back or travel points, the Chase Freedom Unlimited allows you to do both when paired with the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve card.
This card is right for: People who want maximum flexibility in a no-annual-fee credit card.
Earn 5% cash back on travel purchases made through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3% on dining and 3% at drugstores. Earn 1.5% cash back on all other purchases. Expert users can convert the cash back to flexible travel points when pairing the Freedom Unlimited with a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve card. 15-month 0% introductory APR on purchases (14.99%-23.74% variable afterward). No annual fee. Sign-up bonus: Earn $200 bonus cash back after you spend $500 on purchases in your first three months after opening the account.
What we like about the Chase Freedom Unlimited: If you prefer cash back now but think that a dose of adventure is in your future once travel returns to normal, the Chase Freedom Unlimited can give you the best of both worlds.
When you pair the Chase Freedom Unlimited with a premium Ultimate Rewards card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can convert your cash back to travel points at a rate of 1 cent per point. Then you’re able to redeem those points for travel at an increased value of 1.25 to 1.5 cents apiece via the Chase travel portal.
Even better, once you’ve converted the cash back to points, you can transfer them to any of Chase’s 13 airline and hotel loyalty partners. This amazing flexibility is why frequent flyer website The Points Guy values Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents apiece. At that rate, since you’re earning 1.5% cash back on the Freedom Unlimited, you could effectively end up with a 3% return on your purchases.
Chase also added three bonus categories to the Chase Freedom Unlimited in 2020. Both new and existing card holders now earn 5% cash back on travel purchases made via Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3% cash back on dining — including takeout and delivery — and 3% cash back at drugstores, along with 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.
Other benefits of the Chase Freedom Unlimited include purchase protection and extended warranty protection, and a three-month subscription to DashPass if you activate it by December 31.
Get a complimentary three-month subscription to DashPass with the Chase Freedom Unlimited.
One thing that could be better: The 1.5% flat earning rate of the Chase Freedom Unlimited falls short of some other no-annual-fee cards, which top out at 2%. However, the ability to potentially transfer cash back to points might be worth the tradeoff, especially since Chase Ultimate Rewards is one of the better flexibl
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