Major U.S. credit card issuers have expanded internationally this year more than ever before, in hope of escaping the effects of market saturation at home.

Bank One Corp.'s First USA credit card division, which is running neck and neck with Citigroup for supremacy in card loan balances, opened operations centers in Cardiff, Wales, and Ottawa and business development offices in London and Toronto in the fourth quarter.

The Wilmington, Del.-based company said it has about 200,000 customers in each of those countries.

First USA followed several other U.S. card issuers that have gone abroad in recent years, also mainly to English-speaking countries.

Capital One Financial Corp. established itself in the United Kingdom and Canada in 1996, and People's Bank of Bridgeport, Conn., opened its U.K. operation the same year.

Companies with more experience in foreign markets, including MBNA Corp. and Household International, reported growth in the last year.

MBNA-which entered the United Kingdom in 1994 and Canada in 1997-had $5 billion and $600 million of receivables in those markets, respectively, at midyear 1999. MBNA's international portfolio was $700 million larger than a year earlier, said Brian Dalphon, senior executive vice president at MBNA in Wilmington.

After five years of issuing credit cards, Household's U.K. subsidiary, HFC Bank, is the fifth-largest in that country. In 1998, 300,000 new customers signed up for its Goldfish card, which offers rebates on utility bills. That brought the account base to nearly one million.

With its acquisition of Beneficial Bank last year, HFC is up to 2.1 million cardholders in the United Kingdom, according to spokesman Martin Rutland.

Last month HFC announced plans to introduce what it said will be the United Kingdom's first Internet-based credit card.

"The expansion of U.S. issuers overseas, and their success, is going to be a long-term trend," said James Shanahan, partner in the Newark, Del., office of Business Dynamics Consulting. "U.S. issuers are going to continue to take share away from the traditional banks, no question."

Analysts say it will be only a matter of time before these aggressive companies venture more into non-English-speaking countries. Citigroup and American Express Co. are already global. Chase Manhattan Corp. issues cards in Hong Kong-where English is commonly spoken-and anticipates entering other markets.

A study released this week by PSI Global found that demand for credit cards is growing throughout Europe.

High demand for revolving credit is evident in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, and Spain, the study found. Consumers in the emerging markets of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey were seen as eager for new offerings.

Europeans are ready for new competition in the credit card industry and "many are open to accepting cards from non-traditional players," according to Mark Sievewright, president of PSI Global, a market research firm based in Tampa.

PSI Global interviewed 10,500 consumers in 13 European countries for the study.

The consumers rated annual fee rebates, free replacement of stolen or damaged goods, cash rebates, and reward programs as the most attractive card benefits.

The PSI study also found that 45% of Europeans who were offered a balance transfer with a new card account accepted.

Thirty-five percent of new card customers in Europe applied for their accounts through "take-one" forms in local banks. Direct-mail was the second-most-popular way to garner new accounts, the study found.

Advanced marketing techniques and flexible pricing policies have helped U.S. card issuers make quick inroads overseas, Mr. Shanahan said.

In response, British and Canadian banks have been prompted to lower interest rates, which were running as high as 24%.

A September 1998 survey by BAIGlobal Inc. found that U.S. issuers are the top direct-mailers in both the United Kingdom and Canada. MBNA accounted for 19% of all card solicitations sent out in the United Kingdom and 35% of those in Canada. Capital One accounted for 11% of British mailings and 30% of Canadian ones.

Richard Vague, chairman and chief executive officer of First USA, has said international expansion is a priority.

The offices in Canada and the United Kingdom are "doing extremely well," Mr. Vague said. "We will continue to invest in expanding overseas."

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