Best credit card – CNET

Christel Deskins

Credit cards can be both a godsend and a devil’s tool. Used conscientiously — meaning that the balance is promptly paid in full each and every month — they’re a convenient and efficient way to pay for stuff, build up a good credit score and history, and earn cash back and rewards. […]

Credit cards can be both a godsend and a devil’s tool. Used conscientiously — meaning that the balance is promptly paid in full each and every month — they’re a convenient and efficient way to pay for stuff, build up a good credit score and history, and earn cash back and rewards. But perils abound. And a credit card user who pays bills late, spends beyond their means or gets caught up in onerous interest rates and fees can quickly end up in a quicksand-filled ditch of debt. 

Of course, not all credit cards are created equal. Some are designed for particular kinds of transactions — but definitely not others. For example, you wouldn’t want to transfer a balance to a rewards credit card with a high annual percentage rate. And certain maneuvers may require a little bit of math. Case in point: a balance transfer card with a 0% APR may not always be the best credit card for you. 

Best credit cards, compared

Best cash-back card Best travel credit card Best card for balance transfers Best card for students Best card for Amazon and Whole Foods shoppers Best card for Apple Pay super-users (and privacy enthusiasts)
Chase Freedom Unlimited Capital One Venture Card US Bank Visa Platinum Discover it Student Chrome Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card Apple Card
Annual fee $0 $95 $0 $0 $0 $0
Credit requirement 670 to 850 720 to 850 680 to 850 No credit history required but you do need proof of income 580 to 850 580 to 850
Purchase APR 16.49% to 25.24% variable 17.24% – 24.49% variable 13.99% to 23.99% variable 12.99% to 21.99% (0% for the first 6 months) 15.74% to 23.74% variable 12.49% to 23.49% variable

Ultimately, a lot depends on how you plan to use a credit card. Are you expecting to carry a balance from month to month or will you reliably pay it off? Looking to earn rewards points or miles to redeem for travel? Do you need a business credit card or an employee card? Are you a student who needs to finance a bunch of back-to-school purchases? But, then, some credit cards are just clearly better than others — offering more generous terms and conditions, better rewards, lower interest rates and fees and more consumer-friendly privacy policies. 

In 2020, we’ve looked at dozens of credit cards and identified the best credit card options across a variety of categories. We’ve analyzed rewards credit cards — including those that pay cash back on every purchase, earn you rewards points and miles for all kinds of travel purchases, or focus on one particular airline. We’ve assessed which credit cards are best for students, optimal for Amazon Prime shoppers and worthwhile for Apple Pay aficionados. Note that we continuously monitor these cards (and their interest rates) and keep our eyes peeled for new ones, too. Our current top picks for the best credit card are presented below.

Best overall cash back card

Chase

Reward rates: Unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases and 5% back on travel, 3% back on dining, 3% back on drugstore purchases
Annual fee: $0
New member bonus: $200
Bonus redemption threshold: $500 in first three months
Credit requirement: Good to Excellent
Intro APR: 0% on purchases and balance transfers (15 months)
APR for purchases: 16.49% to 25.24% variable
APR for balance transfers: 16.49% to 25.24% variable
Balance transfer fee: 5% (minimum of $5)

Most of the best cash back cards offer a simple, flat rate and no fees. Until recently, the Chase Freedom Unlimited card gave you all of that — a flat rate of 1.5% cash back on all purchases, without a spending limit, no annual fee and flexible redemption policies. In September 2020, however, Chase improved on that deal, adding a little bit of worthwhile complexity and ratcheting up the reward rates on travel (5%), dining (3%), and drugstore purchases (3%). While it’s no longer the simplest, we think it’s the best cash back card for most people.

Rewards details

The Chase Freedom Unlimited offers a $200 bonus if you spend $500 or more during your first three months — that’s one of the lowest bonus thresholds among the cards profiled here. New card members also get 5% cash back on grocery store purchases (up to $12,000) during the first year. Note that the 5% cash back on travel is only for trips booked through the company’s Chase Ultimate Rewards service. Though it offers a lower standard rate (1.5%) than the Citi Double Cash Card (up to 2.0%), we think that flat 1.5% rate plus the higher category spending rates make it the better card overall for most people. 

When to use this card

The Chase Freedom Unlimited delivers the goods whether it’s the only card in your wallet or used to supplement a specific category card, like a travel credit card, which may offer higher bonuses for a particular type of purchase. It can also be useful when paired with a card that earns Chase Ultimate Reward points, because you can convert your rewards into points, which can increase their value. Keep in mind that cards that offer higher rates on certain categories, like the Capital One Savor’s 4% for dining and entertainment, offer only 1% back on all other categories, so it pays to have that flat 1.5% cashback from the Freedom Unlimited for everyday purchases that don’t fall into your other card’s bonus categories.

Redemption details

You can redeem any amount of Chase points either as a statement credit on your bill, or as a direct deposit into your bank account. The redemption flexibility is a nice advantage over other cards that only allow redemptions at certain levels, like 2,500 reward points or $25.

Best credit card for travel rewards

CapitalOne

  • Reward rates: 2x miles on everyday purchases, 5x miles (hotel and car rental only) made through Capital One Travel
  • Annual fee: $95
  • Welcome bonus: 50,000 miles
  • Bonus redemption threshold: Spend $3,000 in first three months
  • APR: 17.24% – 24.49% Variable
  • Foreign transaction fees: None
  • Credit requirement: 720 to 850

The Capital One Venture is a straightforward, easy-to-use credit card for booking travel with rewards points. And those rewards points are generated whenever you spend — so there’s no need to worry whether a particular category is eligible. And though the rewards rate is lower than some higher-fee competitors, the annual fee is significantly lower. That noted, if you plan to spend more than $10,000 on the card annually, you may be better off with a higher-fee travel card.

Check out the full review in CNET’s roundup of the best travel credit cards.

The best student credit card overall

  • Standard APR: 17.99% variable (0% for the first 6 months)
  • Penalty APR: None
  • Late payment fee: Up to $40
  • Annual fee: $0
  • Cashback rewards: 2% on gas and dining, up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter; 1% on all other purchases 
  • Foreign transaction fee: 0%
  • Standout feature: No late fee for first late payment
  • Eligibility requirements: No credit history required, proof of income 

The Discover it Student Chrome offers a winning combination of cash back and other rewards as well as lenient terms for first-time credit card holders. You won’t get dinged for a late payment — at least the first one — or have to deal with an exorbitant penalty APR. And, of course, getting 1 to 2% back in rewards each month is a welcome bonus. Note that Discover offers another similar student credit card, the Discover it Student Cash Back credit card, but the rotating bonus categories make things overcomplicated, especially for first-time cardholders. 

Features and rewards

Most student credit cards offer 1% cash back. The Discover it Student Chrome card bests that with 2% cash back on gas and dining, plus a generous cashback match at the end of the first year. The match effectively doubles your first year’s bonus rewards, so if you receive $75 in cashback rewards during the first 12 months, Discover will chip in an additional $75. We also like that the Chrome student credit card incentivizes good grades: You can earn a $20 statement credit for each school year you maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher. 

Rates and fees 

Discover’s rates and fees are generally lower than competitors’. The APR charged on purchases ranges between 12.99 and 21.99%, and there’s an introductory six-month period with 0% APR. Students with the Discover it Student Chrome also don’t have to worry about a penalty APR, which some issuers will institute if a card holder misses a payment. There’s no late fee for the first late payment, but for the second instance the credit card company charges up to $40, which is comparable to other cards. 

At the moment, most study abroad programs have been put on hold. That noted, the Chrome student credit card has no foreign transaction fees — though Discover isn’t as widely accepted outside of the US as Mastercard and Visa.

Best card overall for balance transfers

  • Introductory APR: 20 months of 0% APR for balance transfers and purchases
  • Standard APR: 13.99% to 23.99% variable
  • Penalty APR: None
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Fee: N/A
  • Standard Balance Transfer Fee: 3% or $5, whichever is greater
  • How long you have to make transfers: 60 days
  • Credit Requirement: 680 to 850
  • Annual Fee: $0

The US Bank Visa Platinum offers one of the longest zero percent introductory APR periods, at 20 months, combined with a relatively low 3% fee.

Best credit card for Amazon and Whole Foods shoppers

  • Reward rates: 5% on Amazon, Whole Foods; 2% at restaurants, gas stations, drugstores; 1% on everything else
  • Annual fee: $0
  • New member bonus: $100 Amazon Gift Card
  • Bonus redemption threshold: Card approval
  • Credit requirement: 580 to 850
  • Intro APR: None
  • APR for purchases: 15.74% to 23.74% variable
  • APR for balance transfers: 15.74% to 23.74% variable
  • Balance transfer fee: 5% (minimum of $5)

This credit card is a must-have for anyone who shops regularly on Amazon. And given that you can buy just about anything on Amazon — 5% back on all eligible purchases there is pretty sweet. The card also features 2% cash back at restaurants, gas stations and drug stores and 1% on everything else. (Note that Amazon offers a basic, non-Prime member card that features 3% cash back on Amazon purchases; but if you’re spending more than $250 per month at Amazon or Whole Foods, you should be a Prime member.)

Check out the full review in CNET’s roundup of the best travel credit cards.

Best credit card for Apple Pay super-users (and privacy enthusiasts)

Apple

  • Reward rates: 3% on Apple, Uber and Walgreens purchases; 2% on Apple Pay purchases; 1% on everything else
  • Annual fee: $0
  • New member bonus: $0
  • Bonus redemption threshold: None
  • Credit requirement: 580 to 850
  • Intro APR: None
  • APR for purchases: 12.49% to 23.49% variable
  • APR for balance transfers: Not offered
  • Balance transfer fee: Not offered

The Apple Card is a beautiful but odd duck. Crafted out of sleek titanium, the credit card looks like it was birthed from a slot on a MacBook Pro. But it’s the iPhone that unleashes its true potential: When you use Apple Pay — the company’s digital wallet and touchless payment feature — you get 2% cash back on all purchases. (Of course, the Citi Double Cash Card offers up to 2% on everything, no matter how you pay.) Otherwise, the Apple Card’s rewards program is a mish-mash of cash rewards: 3% cash back on eligible purchases of Apple gear and services, Uber and Walgreens purchases and 1% cash rewards on everything else. 

But there are a few other noteworthy features. The Apple Card’s privacy policy states that it will “never share or sell your data to third parties for marketing or advertising” — a commitment that’s rare in an ordinarily mercenary industry. Apple delivers your cash-back rewards at the end of each day, instead of the usual month-long billing cycle. And Apple does not charge late fees, an annual fee or foreign transaction fees.  

Check out the full review in CNET’s roundup of the best cash-back credit cards.

Read more: Everything you need to know about choosing a credit card

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