WASHINGTON — The state of California launched a program Friday to help bankers reach out to the underbanked.

The plan is based on a test program that offered low-income workers without bank accounts cheap checking accounts through participating institutions. There is no minimum balance, and the start-up costs are low — customers can open an account with as little as $25.

Participating institutions agree to waive or refund the first set of overdraft fees, and nonprofit consumer education centers will offer financial classes to customers.

Bankers said the program is a great way to reach out to consumers.

"We have been very involved in our communities for quite some time, so this is just taking another step in trying to access the emerging markets," said Linda Walker, the senior vice president of community affairs for the $15.4 billion-asset Guaranty Bank in Austin, one of roughly 30 banks, thrifts, and credit unions participating in the program.

Ms. Walker said the program could attract 50 depositors a month to Guaranty's California branches. "That would be a good goal for us."

Dan Doyle, the president and chief executive officer of the $525 million-asset Central Valley Community Bank in Fresno, said it hopes to use the program to tap into a market of roughly 50,000 unbanked consumers in its hometown, though the idea is more about helping consumers than banks.

It's "trying to focus on helping these individuals open accounts more than just focusing on opening accounts for our banks," Mr. Doyle said.

The Bank on California program is based one the city of San Francisco launched two years ago. That program, Bank on San Francisco, attracted 31,000 depositors, 25,000 of whom still have accounts with banks that offered the program. The average account balance is between $800 and $900, according to Eloy Villafranca, the community affairs officer for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which engineered the state program.

That program is being launched at a crucial time, Mr. Villafranca said. "It's even more important, because of what's going on, that people keep their money safe, that they have the opportunity to save money, to build assets, to learn through financial education."

Representatives from other states had been invited to the California program's launch, he said, and "six or seven" officials from as many states attended.

Ms. Walker said a similar program is already under development in Houston.

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