BEFORE long you may rarely need to visit your bank. In fact, if The Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corp has its way, you would hardly ever need to carry any cash. In two districts of Hong Kong last week, the start of trials for Mondex may herald a new hi-tech era in personal banking in Asia. Within a few years, you may be able to check your bank balance, pay bills, transfer money, even download 'electronic cash', all via the Internet in the comfort of your home. That is the ultimate aim, which a string of other earlier major initiatives are heading towards. The biggest of these is undoubtedly Mondex, which Chris Langley, Hongkong Bank's general manager for Hong Kong and China, described as the most exciting development since the invention of the coin. Mondex, essentially an electronic alternative to carrying cash, is being pioneered simultaneously by 17 major organisations across four continents. Instead of fumbling with notes and coins, you will be able to pay for many goods and services using a smart card. Shoppers can upload cash from their Hang Seng Bank or Hongkong Bank account on to their Mondex card, then spend it as they wish at member retailers. Payments are made by inserting the card into a device which automatically withdraws whatever amount you specify. When all your money is spent, the card can be reloaded from a traditional ATM or special portable terminal. Trials are being carried out at Cityplaza and Kornhill Plaza in Taikoo Shing and Sha Tin's New Town Plaza where 400 firms are participating in the scheme. A host of shops have signed up for the scheme, from 7-Eleven to McDonald's, which will be supported by 30 Hongkong Bank and Hang Seng Bank branches in these areas. The scheme will later be phased into other parts of the territory, before being rolled out across the region. Where HSBC believes Mondex has particular potential is as an alternative to coin machines, like on buses, the MTR, ferries, taxis, public telephones and parking meters. Mondex cards are issued with a small balance reader, which can double as a key fob. Balances can also be checked using ATMs, a Mondex electronic wallet or a Mondex telephone. The wallet is a portable device that enables its user to make a person-to-person Mondex transfer. By inserting one card in each end of the wallet, Mondex 'cash' can be moved from one card to another - just as if you were passing on notes and coins. The wallet, which can be used to lock the card using a personal identification number, also enables customers to log the card's last 10 transactions. The telephone enables users to transfer money to other Mondex phone users. It also allows you to load cash on to your card from your account by phone. The system was developed in Britain by the National Westminster Bank Group and Midland Bank - which is a member of the HSBC Group - and British Telecom. The electronic chips in the cards are made by Hitachi of Japan. HSBC has acquired the intellectual property rights for Mondex in Hong Kong and 12 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. It has already sold a part share of its Mondex franchise to Hang Seng Bank. It now hopes to do the same with many other banks in the territory to provide the necessary critical mass to make the system work. The Bank of China is among those considering buying into the scheme. A bank in Thailand is said to be close to signing up. The People's Bank of China, China's central bank, is also said to be keen to see Mondex developed as a long-term project throughout the mainland. Central banks generally find the process of producing enough notes and coins for a country burdensome. 'They are interested in anything that would make life easier,' said Warner Manning, Hongkong Bank's senior manager banking services in charge of regional marketing. There are two other Mondex pilots underway around the world. Others are expected to start soon in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The first to get underway was in Swindon, England, last July, where 11,000 cards are in operation in a combined NatWest Bank and Midland Bank customer base of 50,000 people. A market survey in Hong Kong showed 87 per cent of those quizzed said they would use a Mondex card if given the chance. When asked if they would be prepared to pay a small fee for the privilege, the figure dropped to 80 per cent. The partners feel there is enormous potential for Mondex's applications to be used on the Internet as an inexpensive way of making payments. Prototype systems are being tested internationally. Hongkong Bank is looking at putting this and a package of its other facilities on-line. Customers would be able to not only carry out bank transactions and check their balances, but also sign up and buy almost any of the HSBC group's products - from insurance to mutual funds. It even envisages putting livestock prices on-line. But before this takes off, the bank wants to be doubly sure of security. It is working with firewall security experts to put up the necessary defences to keep Internet hackers out. 'I have to be convinced that our customers are not going to have their safety compromised in any way,' said Hongkong Bank chief executive David Eldon. Mr Manning said the go ahead for Internet banking could be as early as next year - so long as there are no hiccups. In the meantime, various home pages promoting the group's products will be launched, enabling customers to send off for application forms via e-mail. The group is also looking to launch a telephone banking service in Asia based on technology developed by Midland's First Direct service in Britain. This will be probably launched next year. Mr Manning said its working name was Hongkong Bank Direct. It will offer more telephone banking services than available to ordinary customers - 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The bank claims customers should never have to walk into a bank to carry out any transaction, not even to join. 'It could be a branch in the sky for people who don't have any desire to go a bank,' said Hongkong Bank's senior external relations manager Robert Sherbin. The bank is also developing a new version of Hexagon for the general public. Hexagon, which has been available to corporate clients for about 10 years, offers personal computer banking via modem. The PC-based corporate banking service allows users to do a variety of tasks from checking balances to issuing letters of trade credit. The public's needs are seen as different. Consequently, Hongkong Bank is working with Microsoft to develop the necessary front-end software. It will be based on the Microsoft Money personal finance programme, but adapted to suit both the bank and Asian needs. With all these developments, the age of 'virtual banking' is just around the corner. They will not herald the death of cash, at least in the near future, but certainly the start of its demise. Mr Manning estimates that in 10 years, such technological developments will have cut the need for cash by half.