Cerium oxide nanoparticles (CeO2 NPs) are favorable in nanotechnology based on some remarkable properties. In this study, the crystalline CeO2 NPs are successfully prepared by an efficient microwave combustion (MCM) and conventional route sol-gel (CRSGM) methods. The structural morphology of the as-prepared CeO2 NPs was investigated by various spectroscopic and analytical techniques. Moreover, the XRD pattern confirmed the formation of CeO2 NPs as a face centered cubic structure. The magnetometer studies indicated the low saturation magnetization (23.96 emu/g) of CeO2 NPs for weak paramagnetic and high saturation magnetization (32.13 emu/g) of CeO2 NPs for super paramagnetic. After that, the oxidation effect of benzyl alcohol was investigated which reveals good conversion and selectivity. Besides, the CeO2 NPs modified glassy carbon electrode (GCE) used for the detection of nitrite with linear concentration range (0.02-1200 μM), low limit of detection (0.21 μM) and higher sensitivity (1.7238 μAμM-1 cm-2). However, the CeO2 NPs modified electrode has the fast response, high sensitivity and good selectivity. In addition, the fabricated electrode is applied for the determination of nitrite in various water samples. Eventually, the CeO2 NPs can be regarded as an effective way to enhance the catalytic activity towards the benzyl alcohol and nitrite. © 2017 The Author(s).