Traveling To Cuba [UPDATED: January 2019]
While relations between Cuba & the United States are improving, there are still travel regulations in place. Here’s how you can legally travel to Cuba as an American!
Back in 1960, the United States imposed a severe trade embargo against Cuba. The Blockade was created after Cuba nationalized American-owned oil refineries without compensation.
As part of this embargo, travel to Cuba by Americans has been restricted for over half a century. Or more specifically, it’s technically illegal for U.S. citizens to have transactions (spend money or receive gifts) in Cuba under most circumstances.
Basically, this regulation has prevented most Americans from considering Cuba as a travel destination.
Due to economic sanctions, air travel to Cuba from the United States was almost impossible. American credit & debit cards don’t work in Cuba either.
However rules for traveling to Cuba are finally beginning to change.
Can Americans Travel To Cuba?
Even though travel to Cuba for Americans is restricted, that doesn’t make it impossible to visit. For many years some intrepid Americans were traveling to Cuba anyway. Initially, there were three ways to accomplish this.
You could register for a special license with the US Government if the reason for your travel fit a certain category. These include family visits, professional reasons, journalism, religious or cultural programs, and humanitarian projects.
While you no longer need pre-approval for such a license, technically your visit should still match one of the categories to stay legal. Just in case someone in the US decides to ask later (which doesn’t happen).
12 CATEGORIES OF AUTHORIZED TRAVEL TO CUBA FOR AMERICANS
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
People To People Tours
Organized tours that involve some sort of educational experience with local Cuban people. It’s never been defined officially, but basically, your trip can’t just involve sitting on a beach.
Travelers would talk with a school, volunteer for a community project, or collaborate with artists. A kind of legal loophole that tour companies use to sell tours in Cuba.
Foreign Gateway Cities
The other option was to travel to Cuba “illegally” through a foreign gateway city. This means flying yourself to Canada or Mexico first, then traveling to Cuba on your own from one of those countries. Because for the rest of the world, Cuba has been a popular travel destination for many years.
It’s only us Americans who haven’t been able to visit Cuba!
Independent Travel To Cuba In 2019
As of 2019, the rules state that Americans must travel to Cuba in organized tour groups, or independently under the “Support For The Cuban People” category.
To adhere to the new policies as an independent traveler you need to:
- Travel under any of the 12 allowed categories, including Support The Cuban People. You simply declare that category when booking flights, lodging, and during re-entry into the US.
- Stay at casas particulares, eat at local restaurants, and support local businesses.
- Avoid staying at hotels banned by the US State Department and spending money at military-owned businesses. Here is a complete list.
- Keep detailed records of your time in Cuba. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) can ask you about your travels for the next five years. If you can’t prove that your trip fell within one of the 12 approved categories, you could get in trouble.
While the US government has never asked me about my time in Cuba, and other Americans’ trip reports seem to conclude the same, I can’t guarantee it won’t happen in the future. I’m simply sharing my experience. I’m not worried though.
Basically, the rules haven’t changed much. President Trump is trying to discourage travel to Cuba, but he’s not making it impossible either.
For now you can still travel to Cuba independently, but you’ll need to choose an approved travel category other than People To People tours. Declare a category like Support For The Cuban People instead.
Build an itinerary containing activities that meet the criteria for that category — or get help from local experts to plan a legal trip (5% discount for Expert Vagabond readers!).
If you’re feeling naughty, you can also simply travel through a foreign gateway city like Toronto or Cancun like thousands of other Americans have, including myself.
Cuban immigration won’t stamp your passport, and the US Government will never know you visited Cuba.
Cuban Visa Process
We traveled through the popular foreign gateway city of Cancun, Mexico.
We bought 30-day Cuban tourist visas at the airport in Cancun for $20.
Visas were purchased at the check in counter (or while waiting in line) before your flight. The visa is a separate card you keep with your passport, but it’s not attached.
We flew into Havana from Cancun on the Mexican budget airline Interjet for $240 USD round trip, and the flight took about an hour.
Airlines that are flying to Cuba from the United States now include American, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, United, Spirit, Alaska, and Delta.
For flights leaving from the Untied States, the visa process can be different depending on the airline you’re flying with.
Here’s more information about obtaining a Cuban visa in the United States, depending on who you’re flying with:
- Southwest: $50 – Purchase online & delivered at the gate
- JetBlue: $50 – Purchase at gate
- Delta: $50 – Purchase at gate or through mail
- United: $75 – Purchase at gate
- American: $85 – Purchase online & sent via regular mail
- Frontier: $110 – Purchase online & sent via regular mail
Some reports suggest that it’s not the same everywhere though.
For these reasons, I recommend calling your airline beforehand to verify.
Entering & Cuban Immigration
The Cuban immigration process was super simple. I told the officer in Havana that I was traveling to Cuba for tourism, and he offered to stamp my visa card instead of my passport. This has been standard operating procedure for years.
Cuba WANTS American tourism, so they offer to stamp your visa card instead of your actual passport, so you don’t get in trouble with the US government later.
This way, when you return to the United States, it just looks like you traveled to Mexico. Or Canada. There’s no passport record of your travel to Cuba! They will never know you were there.
However, I asked the Cuban immigration agent to stamp my passport directly. I was curious what would happen when I returned to the United States. Would anyone ask me about it? Would I get fined or arrested?
Nothing happened. When I returned to the United States, immigration didn’t even ask me what countries I’d been to, and they didn’t look at my passport stamps either.
Exchanging Money In Cuba
Credit & debit cards issued by American banks still don’t work in Cuba. So a trip to the island involves bringing lots of cash. How much? Please read my full budget travel guide to Cuba here. To give you an idea, you can travel there comfortably on $50 – $100 per day.
Bring more than you need to be safe. If you run out, you’re out of luck!
Cuba actually has two different currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the “tourist” currency, pegged to the American dollar. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is what locals use, and worth a lot less. So when you exchange money as a tourist, you’ll receive CUC.
$1 USD = 1 CUC = 24 CUP
You can exchange US dollars for CUC, but there is a special 10% penalty fee for this service. So it’s cheaper to exchange Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds, or Mexican Pesos for CUC instead.
There’s an official currency exchange outside the airport in Havana. You can exchange your leftover CUC back to US dollars (or whatever) before you leave the country too.
Accommodation In Cuba
You’ll find some hotels & resorts in the most popular tourist cities like Havana, Trinidad, and Varadero. But they generally aren’t cheap. To travel on a budget in Cuba, you’ll want to stay with locals in casas particulares.
A “casa particular” is like a homestay or guesthouse in someone’s home. They sometimes include breakfast and run between $20 – $30 per night for a double room. To operate a casa particular, local families need to register & pay special taxes to the Cuban government.
Most casa’s don’t have websites, so you just walk around and ask about availability when you get there. If one is booked, the owner will usually help you find another nearby.
AirBnB is now operating in Cuba too! We booked our first two nights in Havana through AirBnB.
Transportation In Cuba
Cuban Bus System
Cuba has a government run bus company for tourists called Viazul that covers most of the country. Tickets aren’t very expensive, but you can’t book them online yet, and popular routes sell out fast. Which means you might need to buy your ticket in person at the station the day before.
Renting A Car
We rented a modern car in Cuba for 6 of the 10 days we were there. Renting a car in Cuba isn’t easy or cheap. There aren’t many vehicles available yet, so you generally have to book a car at least 2 weeks in advance by calling or emailing the company.
When we arrived in Havana, we tried to rent a car directly at the airport with no reservation and were told repeatedly there were no cars left. Eventually Anna found a guy who said he had two, but from the same company who earlier said they had none, Via Rent A Car (they have no website, but you can book online through other sites like Cuba Junky).
So it seemed a bit shady/strange… but we ultimately got one.
Renting a car in Cuba with insurance is going to cost you between $70 – $90 USD per day. It’s not cheap! Luckily we split the cost between 4 of us. There’s also a $200 cash deposit required.
The other option for traveling around Cuba is to rent a vintage American car with driver. This isn’t cheap unless you split the cost with a few people.
Hailing a vintage taxi for a short ride in town will cost you $8 – $10. Renting one for a longer 2-3 hour trip can cost around $60 -$70 USD depending on your bargaining skills.
Split between 4 people, our 3-hour vintage taxi ride from Havana to Viñales cost $60, about the same as 4 bus tickets, but we could stop anytime we wanted for photos or snacks. The cars are super cool too!
I’ve also heard it’s possible to rent one for a full day for $100 – $120.
Internet/WiFi In Cuba
Despite popular opinion, there is some internet access in Cuba. That wasn’t always the case though. For many years Cuba was one of the least connected countries in the world. The government does censor some stuff though, like access to Snapchat or anti-government blogs.
These days you can get connected through Cuba’s state-run ETECSA telecom company. Tourists can buy ETECSA prepaid wifi cards at special kiosks for $2 – $3 per hour of service.
These scratch-off type cards provide a username and password for ETECSA wifi networks, which can be found at major hotels or in public parks around the country.
You can often buy additional cards from locals in the park or at a hotel front desk for about $6. The internet isn’t blazing fast, but you can certainly upload web-sized photos to Facebook & Instagram.
Cuban Exit Fee
As of May 1st 2015, Cuba no longer charges the $25 CUC exit fee to travelers leaving the country, this fee is now included in the price of your airline.
Drinking Water In Cuba
Tap water in Cuba is not safe to drink, and bottled water can sometimes be difficult to find depending on where you are. If you plan on traveling to Cuba, I recommend picking up a LifeStraw Filtered Water Bottle. It’s better for the environment too!
Can You Bring Back Cigars?
I thought you’d never ask! So officially, if you are traveling to Cuba under one of the 12 special categories, you are now allowed to bring back $400 worth of souvenirs, including up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars. Yay!
I managed to bring 30 Cuban cigars back into the United States. I was never questioned about tobacco, and it’s not listed on the customs form as something I have to declare anyway.
Is Traveling To Cuba Ethical?
Good question. While it’s probably impossible to completely avoid giving some of your tourist dollars to the Cuban Government, traveling to Cuba does help the local economy there, which has been hurting badly for years.
Everyone seems to be worried that Cuba is going to get “destroyed” by American tourism, which seems ridiculous to me.
Sure, things will slowly change over time, as they do. Old buildings will get repaired, newer cars will fill the roadways, etc. But those changes will IMPROVE the lives of Cubans — which is a good thing.
It’s really pretty arrogant and egotistical for tourists to wish Cuba remains in a perpetual state of decay for their personal entertainment.
Cubans deserve progress and a better life, just like the rest of us!
Most Recent Changes
To learn more about the legality of traveling to Cuba as an American, check out the Treasury Department’s Cuba FAQ. ★
Bonus Travel Video! 10 Days In Cuba
(Click to watch 10 Days In Cuba – Havana, Trinidad, Vinales, and More on YouTube)
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Have any questions about how to travel to Cuba? Are you planning a trip there? Drop me a message in the comments below!