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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – Hilton Honors Card from American ExpressAmex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card from American Express

There’s no better way to maximize rewards earnings while minimizing costs than to use a credit card with no annual fee. While you can sometimes get an annual fee waived or receive a retention offer that may offset it, there’s no surefire way to keep out-of-pocket costs to $0 other than using a no-fee card and paying your balance in full each month.

Today, I’ll cover the best such cards to use in 2017.

Chase Freedom

The Freedom card has rotating quarterly bonus categories that reward you with 5% cash back/5 points per dollar on up to $1,500 in eligible spending. For example, in the first quarter of 2017, you can earn these bonus rewards on spending at gas stations and on local commuter transportation. Given how valuable Chase Ultimate Rewards points are — and considering that the card comes with a $150 (15,000-point) sign-up bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months — this card packs a real punch.

Points are worth 1 cent each toward travel booked though the Ultimate Rewards travel portal or toward gift cards. If you also have a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, you can combine your points and use them with Ultimate Rewards transfer partners or redeem them for 1.25 cents each toward free travel booked through the Chase portal. Even better, if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can combine your points and use them for 1.5 cents apiece toward travel booked through the Chase portal. Note that this card charges a 3% foreign transaction fee.

Chase Freedom Unlimited Card

A new product from 2016, this card earns 1.5% cash back on all spending, every day. While this may not excite you at face value, if you also hold a premium Ultimate Rewards-earning card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Business Preferred, you can redeem the cash back as points to get 1.5x Ultimate Rewards on all purchase. Since some of your spending probably doesn’t fall within a bonus category, the cumulative effect of increasing rewards by 50% on all your non-bonus expenditures is huge.

Even better, if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which gets you redeemed for 1.5 cents per point toward travel through the Chase portal, you can combine your Freedom Unlimited card points with your Sapphire Reserve points, meaning you’ll earn a 2.25% return on all spending with the no-fee Chase Freedom Unlimited Card. Like the Freedom card, this card charges a 3% foreign transaction fee.

Discover it Card

Like the Chase Freedom, the Discover it Card has rotating quarterly categories that offer 5% cash back on the first $1,500 in eligible spending and 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases. The kicker: Discover’s currently doubling all cash back you earn during the first year after account opening. That means you’ll get 10% cash back on quarterly bonus categories and an unlimited 2% cash back on all other spending — for a year! Plus, this card is really the king of no fees; not only does it waive an annual fee, but it also has no over-the-limit fee, no foreign transaction fees and no late fee on the first late payment.

Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Card

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This card earns you an unlimited 2% cash back on all purchases with no rewards cap and no annual fee. You can deposit your rewards into one of five eligible Fidelity accounts:

  • Brokerage account
  • Fidelity Cash Management Account
  • Fidelity-managed 529 College Savings plan
  • Retirement account
  • Fidelity Go account

You can even deposit your rewards into a loved one’s account and watch the magic of compound interest further boost your cash-back earnings. You’ll also enjoy all the additional benefits of a Visa Signature card, like 24/7 concierge and Signature shopping and travel discounts. The card is offered by Elan Financial Services, so it’s a good option if you feel the need to diversify which card issuers you’re opening new accounts with. It does charge a foreign transaction fee, though at 1% it’s lower than some of the other card’s fees on this list (though you’ll still want to avoid using it abroad).

Citi Double Cash Card

The Citi Double Cash Card offers uncapped 2% cash back and encourages cardholders to pay their statement in full each month.
The Citi Double Cash Card offers cash back and encourages cardholders to pay their statement in full each month.

This is a simple card with a simple earning system: Get 1% cash back on all purchases and an additional 1% back as you pay off the credit card. I like it because it has uncapped cash back on all spending, and it encourages cardholders to pay off their bill each month. You don’t have to worry about keeping up with any rotating categories, and you won’t pay any fees as long as you pay off your statement each month (though there is a 3% foreign transaction fee). If you want simple cash back on all your spending, this is the card for you.

Amex EveryDay Credit Card from American Express

This card gives you the opportunity to earn up to 1.2 American Express Membership Rewards points per dollar — if you use your card for at least 20 transactions in a month, you’ll be rewarded with a 20% point bonus. You also earn 2x points on the first $6,000 you spend at US supermarkets each year (then 1x).

The card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 10,000 Membership Rewards after you spend $1,000 in the first three months of account opening. This card also charges a 2.7% foreign transaction fee. Finally, don’t confuse this no-fee card with the Amex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card from American Express, which can earn you up to 1.5 Membership Rewards on all purchases and 3x points at US supermarkets, but carries a $95 annual fee.

Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Card

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If you prefer earning straight cash back to travel rewards points, this could be a solid alternative to the Chase Freedom Unlimited Card. You’ll earn 1.5% back on all purchases, and you can redeem the cash back for any amount toward a statement credit or check. This card’s currently offering a sign-up bonus of $150 after you spend $500 on purchases within the first three months. In addition to waiving an annual fee, it also doesn’t impose a charge on foreign transactions.

Honorable Mentions 

Hilton Honors Card from American Express — It’s not often you find a no-fee card that offers a decent sign-up bonus and the ability to earn substantial points on bonus categories. New cardholders can earn 80,000 Hilton points after spending $2,000 in the first three months of account opening. Bonus categories include 7x points on all spend within the Hilton portfolio; 5x points on US restaurant, US supermarket and US gas station purchases; and 3x points on everything else. You’ll earn a 500-point bonus every time you book online and pay for your Hilton stay with the card, and you can earn HHonors Gold status with $20,000 in annual spending on the card. This card charges a 2.7% foreign transaction fee.

Stay at the Hilton Niseko under Mount Yotei in Hokkaido, Japan,
Stay at the Hilton Niseko under Mount Yotei in Japan for only 30,000 Hilton points a night in ski season. Image courtesy of Silaphop Pongsai via Getty Images.

Wells Fargo Visa Signature Card — This card is a lot of fun — at least for the first six months after you open an account, since you’ll get 5x points on all gas station, grocery store and drugstore purchases with no cap on earnings during that period. The card’s currently offering a 15,000-point sign up bonus after $1,000 in net purchases in the first three months of account opening. Points are worth 1 cent each for cash back, but if you redeem for airfare through the Wells Fargo Rewards travel portal, they’re worth 1.5 cents each, meaning you earn 7.5x points toward airfare on all gas, grocery and drugstore purchases for six months. Note that this card charges a 3% foreign transaction fee.

Bottom Line

As you can see, you don’t need to pay an annual fee to earn valuable rewards with a credit card. Whether they earn you cash back or points that can be redeemed toward travel, the options listed above represent great opportunities to rack up rewards. There are cases when a credit card’s benefits can justify paying an annual fee, but it’s good to know that there are several solid no-fee options as well.

Which no-fee card is your favorite?

The Platinum Card® from American Express

The American Express Platinum card has some of the best perks out there: cardholders enjoy the best domestic lounge access (Delta SkyClubs, Centurion Lounges, and Priority Pass), a $200 annual airline fee credit as well as up to $200 in Uber credits, and mid-tier elite status at SPG, Marriott, and Hilton. Combined with the 60,000 point welcome offer -- worth $1,140 based on TPG's valuations -- this card is a no-brainer for frequent travelers. Here are 5 reasons you should consider this card, as well as how you can figure out if the $550 annual fee makes sense for you.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
  • Up to $200 for Uber rides annually. Credit and Uber VIP status available to Basic Card Member only.
  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on eligible hotels booked on amextravel.com.
  • As a Platinum Card Member, you can enjoy access to the Global Lounge Collection, the only credit card airport lounge access program that includes proprietary lounge locations around the world.
  • Receive complimentary benefits with an average total value of $550 with Fine Hotels & Resorts. Learn More.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit, up to $200 per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one qualifying airline.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Intro APR on Purchases
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Regular APR
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Annual Fee
$550
Balance Transfer Fee
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Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.