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Following the federal government's lead, state governments are migrating more payments -- for everything from unemployment to child support -- away from paper checks.

But while some experts hail the move to debit cards and direct deposit as safe and convenient for consumers, it also brings a list of rules, restrictions and fees that can trip up consumers who don't do their homework.

The movement away from getting government payments via checks is clear. The federal government soon will mandate that payments be received by direct deposit or debit card. The same holds true for payments going the other direction: Many recipients of state benefits and state-administered payments already must receive that money through debit cards and direct deposit.

The switch is largely about cutting costs. States are partnering with bank or card transaction companies to manage these programs.

Experts say the move holds benefits for the consumer as well. "Not only is there a significant cost savings associated with the use of these cards for state governments, but there are also security issues," says Dave Turner, senior vice president of a division of Xerox that provides debit card services to state and federal government agencies. "Checks can get lost or stolen, or people may not have access to their mail in the event of a natural disaster. It's much more convenient to have a card you can keep with you."

Major players in this space include Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and U.S. Bank, but each program has different rules and regulations. They have some things in common, though.

Here are nine things you should know if you currently receive or might soon receive a state-sponsored debit card for your state benefits or state administered payments:

1. Your payments are automatically loaded on your card. Virtually all state agencies will issue a card once without charge, and automatically reload the benefits on that card at regular intervals when payments are issued or administered.

2. Use the card at retail stores to purchase items and get free cash back. By far, the best places to use your debit card are retail stores where you can use the card without a fee and get cash back.

3. Check your balance online or via a toll-free customer service number. In many cases, you'll have to pay a fee to check your balance at an ATM, although some states allow free balance inquiry checks at affiliated ATMs. For example, Pennsylvania EPPI card users can get their balances free at Wells Fargo/Wachovia ATMs. Also, many states limit the number of balance inquiries you can make over the phone to four or five per month and charge $1 or so for every additional inquiry.

4. You'll pay a fee if you need a replacement. That fee is typically $5 -- if you can wait to get the card via first class mail. But if you're stuck and need overnight delivery, that service can cost as much as $15 to $25.