Importers that do a significant amount of business abroad know that very often, foreign vendors won't begin to fill orders without a letter of credit from the importer's U.S. bank. In the past, obtaining those letters of credit could take a week or more -- which could be a crucial delay for companies that are operating with tight inventories.

This year, however, major U.S. banks have begun to offer a software system that allows an importer to initiate the application for a letter of credit electronically, and have its bank send the letter to the exporter's bank the same day. A company simply fills out the application on its personal computer, then transmits the information directly to its bank's mainframe computer. A company can, at any time, check on the status of its letter of credit, or it can file additional amendments to the original application.

Currently, Bank of America N.T. & S.A., in San Francisco, and Citibank N.A., in New York City, process letters of credit electronically, and other banks are expected to offer the same service within the next few months. The banks generally provide the software free of charge, but companies are still required to pay the normal letter-of-credit fees. These are determined by the size of the letter of credit and the importer's relationship with the bank.