The answer to whether you can get cash back when you buy something with a credit card actually depends on what you mean by "cash back."

While credit cards are great for a lot of things, using them as a way to put cash in your wallet right away when making a purchase at a cash register isn’t one of them (with one notable exception: see below). 

Debit cards have become so familiar, we're totally accustomed to punching in our PINs and asking for cash back at the grocery store. Credit cards don't offer quite the same amount of flexibility. For example, you can't request cash back on a credit card purchase at the grocery store or the pharmacy.

You can, however, get cash from your credit card at a bank teller or at an ATM. You'll just have to pay for the privilege. We'll talk more about this in a moment. First let's address the way you can get cash back, in a way, when you buy something.

Cash-back credit cards

Another possible meaning of "cash back" is definitely a possibility with your credit cards. If you're interested in earning rewards on your everyday spending, there are certainly myriad options that allow you to collect points or otherwise rack up "cash back" when you make purchases at stores, gas pumps, online and just about anywhere you use your credit cards.

Cash-back credit cards can even be tailored to provide you with the highest possible cash back to fit your lifestyle. In other words, if you spend a lot of money monthly on gas, you'll want to look for a cash-back credit card that offers you particularly high rewards earning potential at gas stations. If you're a regular grocery store spender, the same logic applies: Look for a cash-back card that offers higher rewards for spending at grocery stores.

While cash-back credit cards don't provide instant cash in your hand at a cash register, they do offer plenty of opportunity to earn cash back for buying something with your credit card, there's just a bit of a delayed-gratification factor to consider.

Here are some highlights of a few popular cash-back credit card offers:

  • Chase Freedom Flex℠ - Earn a $200 bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months of opening an account; earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases in quarterly bonus categories when you sign up (then 1%), 5% cash back on travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal, 3% at restaurants and on drugstore purchases, and 1% on all other eligible purchases; no annual fee.
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited® - Earn a $200 bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months of opening an account; earn 5% cash back on travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal, 3% at restaurants and on drugstore purchases, and 1.5% on all other eligible purchases; no annual fee.
  • Citi® Double Cash Card - 18 month BT offer - Enjoy introductory 0% APR on balance transfers for 18 months (then 13.99% – 23.99% (Variable)); earn 1% when you make a purchases and another 1% when you pay your bill on time (at least the minimum balance due) for a possible total of 2% cash back on your purchases; no annual fee. Citi is a CardRatings advertiser.
  • Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card - Earn a $200 bonus after spending $500 on purchases within your first three months as a cardholder; earn 1.5% cash back on all your purchases; enjoy introductory 15 months no interest on purchases (then 15.49% - 25.49% (Variable)); no annual fee.
  • Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express - Earn 20% back on purchases made on the card within the first six months of card membership, up to $200 back. Plus, earn $150 back after you spend $3,000 within the same time frame. You will receive cash back in the form of statement credits. On an ongoing basis, earn 6% back on up to $6,000 in purchases at U.S. supermarkets annually (then 1%) and 6% back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions, 3% back at U.S. gas stations and on transit purchases including rideshares, train fares, tolls, parking and more, and 1% on all other purchases; $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95. annual fee. American Express is a CardRatings advertiser. See Rates and Fees.

Credit card cash advances

Getting back to the the ways you can get immediate cash-in-hand with your credit card. According to most industry analysts who watch these kinds of statistics, cash advances have declined in popularity over the past few years. So many merchants accept credit cards, it's often easier to transact with plastic than with greenbacks, anyway. Even the best credit cards charge certain fees, so should you require cash in an emergency, here’s what you might end up paying:

  • Cash advance fee. Many banks now charge an upfront fee of up to 5% when you convert part of your credit limit into cash.
  • Immediate finance charges. Unlike purchases, most cash advances immediately start racking up interest. Many banks charge higher APRs for cash advances than for purchases.
  • Network access fee. Your bank and the ATM network could each charge you a service fee of a few dollars for handling your cash advance.
  • Teller processing fee. If you make your cash advance request from a live person at a bank or at a travel services agency, you can expect to pay an even higher service charge.

You can also get cash from your credit card by using convenience checks. Most of us use these to take advantage of balance transfer offers when we want to pay off a debt that's not linked to a major online bill payment service. Convenience checks often carry their own fees of up to 5% of face value.

One final – but not necessarily recommended – method to get cash from your credit card involves reloading prepaid debit cards at particular retail locations. However, merchants can dictate whether they process this kind of transaction as a cash advance. If you find one that doesn't, you can pay a flat fee for the reload card, then withdraw the cash from a participating ATM. Due to the potential for fraud, many merchants decline to sell prepaid card reload packs to customers using anything other than ATM cards or cash.

Used sparingly, this can be an inexpensive way to tap some cash from a credit card without paying hefty fees. Some cards may charge various fees for activation or usage. So be sure you fully understand the fees attached to the prepaid card.

An exception to the rule: Discover cards offer cash back at the register

A comment from a reader sent us digging into another option for cash back at the register. It turns out that Discover cardholders CAN receive cash back, up to $120 in a 24-hour period at some retailers. 

This "cash over your purchases" amount is subject to the same APR as your regular purchases (not the higher APR that many cash advances are subject to). If you make sure and pay off your credit card statement balance each month, this essentially means that you're making a cash withdrawal for free. It is convenient, for sure, but make sure you don't treat it like "free money." You will pay interest on the amount you get back if you don't pay off your statement balance each billing cycle. 

One more thing, you won't earn rewards on the cash-over amount.

(See Rates and Fees of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express)

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