Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul made the cut as the International Olympic Committee executive board settled on a shortlist of finalists.
Doha, capital of the Gulf state of Qatar, and Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, were rejected for a second time in a row after failing to make the final list for the 2016 Games.
Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul — all former bidders — now advance to the final phase, a 17-month race that will end with the IOC vote on Sept. 7, 2014, in Buenos Aires.
Madrid is bidding for a third consecutive time, Tokyo a second time in a row and Istanbul a fifth time overall.
Whether to keep all five candidates or pare the list to four or three was a tricky choice for the IOC at a time of global economic and political uncertainty. IOC officials said the decision involved a careful risk assessment.
The 15-member executive board, headed by IOC President Jacques Rogge, chose the finalists after examining a technical evaluation report compiled by a panel of Olympic experts.
Baku was always the outsider, seen as lacking in experience in hosting international sports events. The main question involved whether to accept Doha, and the latest IOC rejection is sure to stir acrimony in Qatar.
Qatar is already hosting the 2022 World Cup, but faced questions over the heat, the timing and other issues for the Olympics. The IOC agreed to let Doha bid based on Qatar's proposal to hold the games from Oct. 2-18 to avoid the brutal summer heat, but officials remained concerned about the weather, conditions for athletes and potential conflicts with television and other sports events going on during that time of year.
IOC executive director Gilbert Felli said the October date was "not the only reason" Doha was dropped from the race.
The dynamics of the race changed dramatically when Rome, considered a potential 2020 favourite, pulled out of the bidding in February after the Italian government declined to provide financial guarantees at a time of economic austerity.
Madrid is bidding against the backdrop of Spain's financial crisis, something the IOC said it would take into account.
Madrid bid leader Alejandro Blanco said the city would go the distance until the vote in Buenos Aires. He insisted the Spanish government fully backs the project and said the games would be a catalyst for economic recovery.
Tokyo, which hosted the 1964 Olympics, is bidding in the aftermath of last year's earthquake and tsunami disaster.
The Istanbul bid had been knocked off course by Turkey's concurrent bid for football's 2020 European Championship. The IOC has made clear that Turkey cannot both hold both events, but Istanbul gained breathing room last week when UEFA extended the bidding process for the Euros and scheduled the final decision for early 2014
Istanbul leaders assured the IOC that the Olympic bid was the No. 1 priority of the Turkish government.