The perception about credit cards without annual fees is that they’re essentially free to carry. And that’s actually true – no annual fee cards are “free” so long as you’re paying your credit card bill on time and in full each month.

But with the credit reporting agency TransUnion recently reporting that the average credit card debt per borrower is hovering above the $5,000 mark, it’s a safe assumption that many of us are carrying a balance and, unfortunately, are paying for it with high interest payments every month.

So, even if you aren’t paying an annual fee, the balance you’re carrying makes that card anything but free.

If you want a free credit card, the process is simple and two-fold: 1.) Apply for a credit card with no annual fee and 2.) Pay your balance off each and every month. Granted, that last step is easier said than done, but it’s the only way to enjoy the perks of a credit card free of charge. And in fact, if you apply for a cash back card with no additional fees, your credit card may even end up paying you simply for using their card.

The best no annual fee credit cards go beyond the lack of a yearly fee; they include lucrative cash back programs, 0 percent interest on balance transfers and even a one-time bonus when you spend a specific amount over a set period of time. There are actually several credit cards on the market today that fit that mold, and are again “free” to carry if you pay your bill on time and in full each and every month. Here are the pros and cons of three of the best…

Chase Freedom

Pros: First and foremost, there’s no annual fee on this card. It also rewards consumers with a $100 cash back bonus when they spend $500 or more within the first three months from their account opening. Consumers pay no interest on balance transfers or purchases for the first 15 months, and the cash back program includes 5 percent cash back on categories that rotate each quarter.

Cons: Cardholders have to enroll each quarter to receive the 5 percent cash back, which is a little high maintenance. Plus, unless you have a good-to-excellent credit score, you’re unlikely to get approved for a credit card of this caliber.

Discover it

Pros: Again, there’s no annual fee to deal with. Similar to the aforementioned Chase Freedom card, there’s a 5 percent cash back program with categories that change each quarter. Cardholders will pay zero interest on balance transfers and purchases for 14 months, and while you never want to pay late they’ll waive the fee attached to your first late payment. Discover’s customer service is also notoriously strong.

Cons: Like the Chase Freedom Card, you have to enroll to participate in the 5 percent cash back program. This is a card reserved for good-to-excellent consumers only, and there’s no $100 cash back bonus for consumers eager to spend.

Capital One Cash Rewards – $100 Cash Back Bonus

Pros: No annual fee, $100 cash back bonus when you spend $500 in the first three months from account opening, 1% cash back on all purchases and a 50 percent anniversary bonus on the points you earn every year. So essentially, you’re receiving 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases. That said…

Cons: There’s no 5 percent bonus cash back program, and the percent  intro period – while solid – is shorter than the above no annual fee credit cards. And finally, this credit card is for excellent credit consumers only, so don’t bother applying if you’re not sporting at least a 700 score.

Overall, there are some excellent no annual fee cards available for consumers, all of which can be “free” to carry so long as you never carry a balance. That said, if your credit score is just average or poor, you’re unlikely to get approved for these cards and may have to settle for a card with an annual fee. Don’t get too down, though; responsible use with that not-so-free card over time (on-time payments, keeping your balance low, etc.) can lead to a better credit score and ultimately better credit card offers for you.