Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc., thriving despite challenging economic conditions, are looking at money transfers as one way to stay that way in a fast-changing payment industry.
Both companies offer card-to-card remittances in foreign countries. And the multibillion-dollar global market, currently dominated by cash-to-cash transfers, is one where Visa and MasterCard can exploit their technology and infrastructure without much additional investment.
Visa, which announced Wednesday that it is adding Indonesia to the dozen countries where it offers money transfers, is contemplating a rollout closer to home.
"Certainly the United States is on our road map, as is Mexico. We see money transfer as a truly global opportunity," Kelly Alpert, the head of Visa's global money transfer initiative, said in an interview Thursday. She would not say when it aims to offer transfers in those countries.
Joseph Saunders, the San Francisco company's chairman and chief executive, said in a conference call Wednesday, "The scale and reach of Visa's global network ideally positions us to capitalize on the money transfer opportunities in the long term."
Ms. Alpert said Visa's service depends on its financial institution clients, which determine whether to make remittances available across borders or only within a country. "The banks are the ones that offer this type of service; we provide the infrastructure."
The sender does not need a Visa card to make transfers through some banks, though the recipient does in all cases, she said. Payments can be sent from a bank branch, through an automated teller machine, or online.
"There are investments required," and Visa is making "some changes to our transaction processing system … to make this available anywhere," Ms. Alpert said. "Our priority is to use the existing network we have. We don't need to build a new" system to expand.
Gary J. Flood, MasterCard's president for products and services, said in an interview in June that it had launched a test in Asia about two years ago.
"There's a big opportunity for our customers … to tap a new audience," he said. Card-to-card transfers, "whether it's on a phone or an ATM or on the Web, versus going to an office and paying somebody money to do it, it seems kind of logical, and with the proliferation of mobile phones, it's fertile ground."
MasterCard said in June that it would offer mobile person-to-person payments in the United States through a partnership with Obopay Inc.
Erica Harvill, a spokeswoman for MasterCard, said Thursday that it is in discussions with all its issuers to offer the technology, and it expects a rollout early next year.
Ms. Alpert stressed that money transfers make up "a small percentage" of Visa's transaction volume. However, "we have a large opportunity to displace cash and checks."
Eric S. Jackson, a spokesman for Western Union Co., said it respected Visa and MasterCard, but "we are in over 200 countries" and its transfers are available at over 355,000 locations. "Cash is king for our customers."
Ann Baddour, a senior policy analyst for the Washington legal advocacy group Appleseed, said Visa and MasterCard could be stymied by a system that still depends heavily on cash, especially for recipients of money transfers.
"There are issues of the infrastructure on the receiving side that need to be developed" for card-based systems "to really take off," she said. "People have a system that works for them. There needs to be an added value in terms of cost, convenience, or access that will push people to change the way they're doing things."
Philip J. Philliou, a partner at the payment consulting firm Philliou Selwanes Partners LLC, lauded Visa and MasterCard for taking steps "to use their processing capabilities for purposes other than cards." He also said they probably would not pose a threat to established remittance providers in the short term. "It's not the mechanics of moving the funds," he said. "The magic is in the marketing, having a very specific understanding of the immigrant communities that they serve."
Adil Moussa, an analyst at Aite Group LLC, said that the network-branded model could create a hurdle for Visa and MasterCard, as it would restrict consumers to receiving such remittances on one brand of card.
But that might also become "a way to push their acceptance, meaning that if I have a Visa card here in the U.S., and I want to send money to Nigeria, then I might be more prone to push my family to get a Visa card," he said.