Mobile payments are beginning to move out of the pilot-test phase and into commercial use in several international markets.
Visa Inc. announced Wednesday that it is beginning to offer payment services to the general public in South Korea and Brazil, though there is no plan to introduce such services on a comparable scale in this country.
"This is the next step in making mobile commerce a global reality," Pam Zuercher, the vice president of product innovation at the San Francisco payment card company, said in an interview.
In South Korea, Visa said, it is letting commuters use their Visa accounts to top up the balances on their T-Money transit cards automatically. All telephone handsets in the country are shipped with a T-Money application preloaded on their Subscriber Identity Module chips, Ms. Zuercher said. More than 220,000 Seoul commuters use the contactless payment application, and the total is expected to exceed 1 million by the end of 2009.
The service lets customers authorize the automatic topping-up of the prepaid account that is stored on the phone's SIM card when it falls below a preset level, she said. "We're enabling that more convenient reload of that purse."
In this project Visa has partnered with the T-Money provider Korea Smart Card Co., the issuer Shinhan Bank, and Korea Telecom Freetel.
In Brazil, Visa announced the availability Tuesday of remote mobile payments by Banco do Brasil SA, allowing the Brasilia bank's Visa cardholders to pay for a variety of things, such as food delivery or pharmacy purchases, with their handsets and confirm the transactions via text message.
These applications are distinct from Visa's mobile initiatives in the United States, which have involved testing handsets with embedded contactless payment chips and, more recently, trials of alerts and offers using text messaging.
"Our strategy is a global channel strategy that can be customized for the specific needs of a given market," Ms. Zuercher said.
In its announcement Wednesday, Visa listed 14 projects around the world, most of them described as trials or tests and most commonly using near-field communication payment technology.
Ms. Zuercher would not say when any of the U.S. trials might come out of the pilot phase and into commercial use.
Other financial companies with global reach also are pursuing diverse strategies to appeal to local markets. Citigroup Inc., for instance, is using a downloadable application in the United States to enable mobile banking services, such as balance inquiries and branch searches. But Citi is to begin testing a browser-based service this month in Hong Kong to allow stock trading, among other functions, and is focusing on text message banking and payments in the Philippines.
The card processor First Data Corp., by contrast, is offering a contactless payment sticker that functions as a reloadable prepaid card. The Denver payments company that is owned by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. distributed 5,000 of its Go-Tag stickers to delegates and media at the Democratic National Convention last week.
Virginia Garcia, a senior analyst at TowerGroup in Needham, Mass., an independent research group owned by MasterCard Inc., said that mobile payments will develop in different ways in different parts of the world but that the overall direction is clear.
"Mobile payments are in many ways the future of consumer payments, and that is the reason why Visa is putting such a stake in the ground," Ms. Garcia said.
Visa and rivals such as MasterCard are pursuing numerous approaches with handset makers and wireless carriers, but Ms. Garcia said nonfinancial companies are ultimately likely to cede the payments business, and interchange income, to banks because of the regulatory burden.