The use of prepaid cards is surging, according to a report by MasterCard Inc.

The total value loaded onto network-branded prepaid debit cards in the U.S. could reach $440 billion in 2017, nearly four times the $120.2 billion last year.

Boston Consulting Group studied prepaid trends in 46 countries on three continents for the Purchase, N.Y., payments company, looking at 18 categories of cards, including payroll cards and health care spending accounts. The research company originally published its Prepaid Market Sizing Report in 2008 with projections through 2015, but updated it this month to include data for 2009 with projections through 2017. The updated report was released Monday.

The U.S. will continue to lead the prepaid sector's expansion worldwide, Boston Consulting predicts, accounting for 53% of the global network-branded prepaid card market.

That's more than double the combined share of India, the U.K., Mexico, the Middle East and Brazil, which combined represent 25% of the total share.

Growth outside the U.S. shows how open-loop prepaid products have "the ability to benefit many different constituents" worldwide, said Laura Kelly, MasterCard's senior vice president of global prepaid solutions.

The need for consumers to be included in the financial process is one factor driving growth outside the U.S., Kelly said. "If you have a large segment of the population that is unbanked or underbanked, [prepaid] is the perfect answer for them."

Efforts to replace cash and checks for payroll purposes are also spurring growth. Government regulations play a part in that, Kelly said.

In the Middle East, for example, there is a regulatory mandate to eliminate cash payroll disbursements.

Brazil is expected to have the largest growth outside the U.S., the report found.

The total value loaded onto network-branded cards there should reach $17 billion in 2017, up from $1.7 billion in 2009, driven largely by the shift from cash and check payroll disbursements to cards, Kelly said as well as a significant underbanked population.

In the U.S., funds loaded into card accounts tied to the public sector, such as unemployment benefits, will total $163 billion by 2017, up from an estimated $31.7 billion in 2009, the report said.

The amount loaded onto U.S. payroll cards will total $99.6 billion by 2017, up from $25.6 billion in 2009.

Health care also will drive up growth, according to the report.

Funds loaded into card accounts used for health care savings and flexible spending accounts will increase to $52 billion by 2017, up from $15.3 billion in 2009, according to the report.