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A checking account that pays 5 percent interest

Forget about savings accounts and certificates of deposit. Safety-first investors looking for the best returns can earn more by socking their money in interest-bearing checking accounts. Twenty-one banks and credit unions now offer checking accounts that pay interest rates of 2 percent or more, according to a new study by BankRate.com.

That's more than 10 times the yield you'd get on the average bank savings account, and it's comparable to what you'd earn on a 5-year certificate of deposit, which would levy a heavy fine if you wanted to withdraw your money early. It's also more than you could currently earn on a 10-year Treasury note.

Checking accounts, of course, provide easy access to your funds at any time, and there's no risk to your principal because the federal government guarantees balances to $250,000 per depositor.

"Even in this low-rate environment, consumers can generate hundreds of dollars in interest earnings per year with these accounts," said Bankrate.com Chief Financial Analyst Greg McBride.

What's the catch? Most commonly, institutions offering attractive yields require that you deposit checks electronically and eschew paper statements. They also may require that you to use your debit card a set number of times each month or pay your bills online.

If you don't meet the necessary criteria, the interest rate will fall dramatically, to an average of 0.06 percent, said McBride.

It's worth noting, too, that interest rates on checking deposits can change at any time. And even though 2 percent is a high return in today's environment, inflation has historically averaged 3 percent annually, so leaving money in a low-rate account for a long stretch can cause you to loose buying power over time. That said, if you need a place to park your emergency funds, a high-rate checking account may be just the ticket.

Where can you find the best rate?

The highest rate in the country -- a whopping 5 percent -- is offered by Northpointe Bank in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The bank will pay the 5 percent only on a maximum of $5,000 in deposits and requires that you use your ATM card at least 15 times a month.

Four Midwestern credit unions -- Consumers, Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and CapEd -- offer rates between 2.5 percent and 4.59 percent, depending on the amount of the deposit and whether you meet additional requirements. All four of those credit unions are open to members nationwide, but you may need to pay a small fee to open an account.

Other regional banks and credit unions also offer good rates. Notably, the Boeing Employee Credit Union offers a 4.07 percent annual percentage rate. But it's open only to residents of Washington state or current and former employees of Boeing (BA) and members of employees' families.

To find other high-rate checking account issuers and what they might require to score the best interest, check out BankRate's survey.