For some financial institutions, the Interlink-Maestro decision will be based on their allegiance to the "off-line" debit card systems, Visa Debit and Master Debit.

Unlike Interlink and Maestro, Master Debit and Visa Debit rely on the existing credit card networks. That means that bank's don't have to sell retailers any new equipment to accept the cards - the terminals they need are already there.

The downside, however, is that with Master Debit and Visa Debit, there is a delay in the movement of cash from the cardholders bank account to the retailer's. When consumers pay with an off-line card, there is no guarantee that the funds to cover their purchase are in the bank accounts.

Money Moves Faster

Interlink and Maestro, by contrast, are fully electronic on-line systems. That means they move funds from a cardholder's account into a retailer's instantaneously, assuring that the funds are there.

Financial institutions, therefore, feel secure doling out Interlink and Maestro cards to almost everybody. With Visa Debit and Master Debit, they have to limit themselves to their most creditworthy customers.

Still, the off-line cards have been a big hit at some financial institutions, which have been issuing them - at a price. At Norwest Corp., Minneapolis, some 160,000 customers pay a monthly fee of $1.25 to sport "Instant Cash & Check," the bank's Visa Debit card.

Fee Income Provided

"We're very comfortable with Visa Debit," said John Sikkink, a Norwest senior vice president. "Customer really like it and we like it because there's a revenue flow back to the bank."

As is true for their credit card cousins, Master Debit and Visa Debit provide their issuers with fee income each time consumers use their cards. At Norwest, some customers use Visa Debit cards five to six times a month, Mr. Sikkink said.

Norwest's devotion to the Visa Debit product led it to choose Visa's Interlink as its national "on-line" debit mark. "We like the family relationships," Mr. Sikkink said. "But our primary priority is to continue to market the Visa Debit product."

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