HOW TO TRAVEL TO CUBA AS AN AMERICAN
If you’re reading this you must be curious about how to travel to Cuba. Well, we just went recently (Spring 2019) and we’re here to help you figure it out!
President Trump put new travel restrictions in place as of June 5, 2019, again further restricting travel by US citizens to Cuba and strengthening the US embargo against the country.
The administration effectively banned cruise ships and educational group tours to the island. Most private planes and boats are also banned, but luckily for you, commercial airline flights appear to be unaffected.
Can US Citizens travel to Cuba in 2020?
Whether you follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, swim in crystal clear Caribbean waters, or go horseback riding through the raw natural beauty of an island that is largely undeveloped. Yes, it’s still possible for Americans to travel to Cuba legally (or illegally) in 2020!
It must be one of the only countries in the world without McDonald’s or Starbucks! But don’t worry Cuban coffee is better anyway and you can likely meet the farmer who grows it.
Marvel at the architecture and history of a former Spanish colony. Get out and enjoy Cuba’s vibrant live music scene and learn some sexy salsa moves or kick back and sip on a mojito while puffing the world’s finest tobacco.
*There are affiliate links in this post. Read our disclosure policy to learn more.
The back story on travel restrictions for Americans visiting Cuba
It all started with a military man named Fulgencio Batista (US-backed dictator) who had already been President from 1940-1944. After his term in office ended he returned to Florida and the US for eight years until he decided to run for President again in 1952.
Facing a certain defeat in a three-way election race he decided to orchestrate a military overthrow instead, months before any votes were cast. A young lawyer by the name of Fidel Castro hoped to run for parliament in that suspended election.
After seizing the presidency by force, Batista became a dictator with a reputation for brutality. It’s well documented that he suppressed, tortured, and executed opponents. His administration was rife with corruption and had numerous ties to the American Mafia.
Throughout the 1950s, Havana was a lawless playground for the elite. Millions were being made from gambling, prostitution, and drugs directly benefiting Batista and the mafia at the expense of the Cuban people who were left with economic stagnation. Batista was giving Cuba away to multi-national corporations handing out sweetheart deals to American businesses who already owned about 70% of the country.
The Cuban Revolution
Realizing that Batista couldn’t be brought down through political activism or legal means Castro planned an armed revolution. With anger rising against Batista and various student uprisings already occurring, Castro led his guerrilla fighters to victory in the Cuban Revolution and seized power in 1959 when Batista finally fled Cuba.
The US implemented a strict trade embargo on almost all exports to Cuba in 1960 after the new government nationalized American held properties and assets without compensation. El Bloqueo aka “The Blockade” has been in place for nearly 60 years and is the longest-running trade embargo in recent history.
According to OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) regulations, it’s technically illegal for U.S. citizens to spend money in Cuba in most cases. Because of this, and a general lack of knowledge on how to go about visiting, most Americans haven’t considered traveling to Cuba.
The US began efforts to normalize relations with Cuba under the Obama administration and formally reopened its embassy in Havana after over 50 years in 2015. Obama went to Havana in 2016 as the first US President to visit Cuba since 1928.
The newest restrictions by the Trump administration are aiming to roll back those Obama-era efforts to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba. Current policies seem to also be put in place because of Cuban support for Venezuela and Nicaragua. Undermining US efforts to institute regime change in another section of Latin America.
Regardless of how you may or may not feel about Communism, it’s worth mentioning that for the past 27 years the countries of the UN General Assembly have voted overwhelmingly in favor of ending the embargo. The most recent vote in 2018 being a landslide 189-2 result, with the US and Israel being the only votes against ending it.
Read next: Best Bars and Live Music in Havana, Cuba
Obtaining a license for Cuba
Previously, you had to obtain a special license from the US Treasury to visit Cuba pertaining to one of the pre-approved categories allowed by the US Government.
Nowadays, the general licenses are self-qualifying. You don’t need pre-approval from the government. However, your airline will likely ask you to fill out an affidavit for travel to Cuba when traveling from the United States. The signed affidavit for travel is just you stating your purpose of going, which should match one of 12 authorized categories to stay legal.
12 Categories of Approved Travel to Cuba for US Citizens
- Family visits
- Official business of the US 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 informational materials
- Travel for certain authorized export transactions.
Support for the Cuban People
“Support for the Cuban People” is the most commonly used category and legally allows visitors as long as they are assisting Cuban people. For most travelers, it’s the best way to go since Trump’s recent 2019 changes. Travelers are encouraged to interact with locals on a meaningful level.
This means travelers will have a responsibility in Cuba and will need to keep evidence of “supporting Cuban people”. This is done by staying at privately-owned bed and breakfasts (casa particulares), eating at private restaurants, shopping in privately-owned stores, interacting with artists, and avoiding government businesses.
Read more about this category under #20 on treasury.gov.
For current info on where you’re not permitted to spend money see the US Department of State’s Restricted list.
You must keep all your records and receipts for 5 years
OFAC can ask for documentation of activities for up to five years after your trip, although this is very unlikely. Don’t expect any problems returning home. Customs and Border Patrol don’t enforce anything related to trips to Cuba. Period.
Required medical insurance
Cuba requires visitors to have non-U.S. medical insurance, which is usually included in airline ticket prices on flights originating in the United States (keep your boarding pass as proof) or it can be purchased at the airport upon arrival to Havana. However, we were never asked for proof of insurance upon arrival in Cuba.
Flying from the United States
You can still fly straight from the US and you’ll likely be flying through Miami, Tampa, or Ft. Lauderdale. The most common airlines flying to Havana are American Airlines, United, Delta, Southwest and Jet Blue.
Buying your ticket
Purchase your flight to Cuba in the same way you’d buy a ticket to any other destination. We use and recommend Skyscanner for flights. Before you check out, a little pop up may ask if you’re traveling to Cuba under one of the 12 valid reasons mentioned above. You just click yes and proceed with your purchase as normal.
There are two ways you can obtain your Cuban visa: online or at the airport. If you decide to get your visa online ahead of time it’ll be less expensive costing you $85. Check out Cuba Travel Services to purchase your Cuban visa card and for information on how to fill it out. Know that it will take around seven business days to arrive at your home.
You can also buy your Cuban visa card at Miami International Airport. Cuba Travel Services has a kiosk near American Airlines. If you fly starting from Miami you can purchase your card at that kiosk. If you’re flying through Miami on a connecting flight you can buy it at your departure gate. Keep in mind it’s $100 at the airport.
This is a Cuban requirement and has nothing to do with the 12 Categories of Legal Travel required by the US Government. If you’re traveling from the US, this visa card is pink. If you are traveling from outside the US, this card is usually green.
Cuban immigration officials will keep half of the visa and you’ll keep the second half of the visa for when you depart Cuba. Try not to lose it!
Affidavit for Travel to Cuba
Your airlines may ask you to fill out an affidavit for travel to Cuba where you select your reason for traveling under one of the 12 categories. Under the license number use the citation code for your category of travel, for most this will be 31 CFR §515.574 – Support for the Cuban People.
Flying from another country
Americans can access Cuba illegally from Canada or Mexico. Because we were already traveling in Mexico, going from Cancun was the easiest and most affordable option for us. Plus, it’s a great way to visit both Mexico and Cuba during the same trip. This is the way adventurous Americans have done it for many years.
Buying your ticket
We purchased our flight from Cancun to Havana on Interjet Airlines about a month in advance for $200 each, which included one checked bag per person.
You’ll be asked to purchase the Cuban visa card at the Cancun airport as you’re in line to check-in for your flight. It costs $25 per card, or 350 pesos each (it’s cheaper to pay in pesos). Again, there are two parts to the visa, Cuban officials will take one half and you keep the other half for your records.
Affidavit for Travel to Cuba
We were never given an affidavit asking what authorized category we were traveling under. It doesn’t appear to be common to fill out paperwork when flying from outside the US, but we still recommend sticking to the rules under “Support for the Cuban People” as mentioned above.
*Cuban immigration won’t even stamp your passport, they’ll stamp your visa card. In this case, the US Government won’t know you visited Cuba. While this may be technically illegal, we had no problems whatsoever. We have never been questioned about our trip by anyone and many others seem to report the same. However, we’re not lawyers offering legal advice, we’re only speaking from our experience.
Thoughts on US travel restrictions
People from the rest of the world have been visiting Cuba for a long time without any problems. Cuba wants American tourists to come and visit the country. It’s the US Government that has an issue with Americans traveling to Cuba and spending money there.
We don’t agree with these policies. In our eyes, the US Government shouldn’t be policing where Americans can or can’t go on vacation. Doesn’t exactly sound free, does it? Plus it holds back the local people from the benefits of tourism and economic opportunity.
Cuba is primarily a cash-based society. Americans can’t use US debit or credit cards in Cuba. They won’t work! The US and Cuba do not maintain a banking relationship because of the US trade embargo.
We heard a horror story about an American who didn’t know this and spent all his cash in the first few days, to then find out he couldn’t get money out of the ATM. Our host at the casa particular we stayed at in Viñales gave him money for the rest of his 10-day trip, trusting that he would send the money back to her upon his return home.
Please don’t be that person. Bring all the cash you think you’ll need and then some! We recommend bringing at least $100 per day per person. It doesn’t mean you’ll spend it all, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Understanding Cuba’s dual currency: CUC vs. CUP
There are two official currencies in use in Cuba. It is important to familiarize yourself with both!
The CUC aka Cuban Convertible Peso is the currency for tourists and travelers. Since 2011 it has been pegged to the US dollar at 1:1. Notes come in – $1, $3, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100. The coins come in – 5¢, 10¢, 25¢, 50¢, $1.
The CUP aka Cuban Peso aka Moneda Nacional is the currency used by locals and state workers to buy goods and services. It exchanges at the rate of 25 CUP = 1 CUC. So 1 CUP is only about .04 cents. As a traveler, you might use it to tip, to get a drink, or for ice cream and popcorn. We encourage you to use it wherever you can, especially if you’re on a budget.
How do you tell the currencies apart? CUC bills have monuments on them and CUP bills have portraits of people.
Which currencies are accepted in Cuba? US Dollar, Canadian Dollar, Euro, British Pound Sterling, Japanese Yen, Swiss Franc, Mexican Peso, Norwegian Krone, Danish Krone, and Swedish Krona.
Exchanging money in Cuba
Euros, pounds, and Canadian dollars have the best exchange rates! It’s pretty simple, don’t bring USD. Go to a bank or money exchange before arriving to Cuba and change your US dollars into another currency, it’ll save you money.
There is a 10% penalty fee to exchange USD, meaning $100 was only exchanging to 87 CUC. All other currencies have a 3% exchange fee. For this reason, we brought euros on our trip.
Exchange houses known as Cadecas are where to exchange your money. You can also do so upon arrival at the airport or Hotel Nacional in Havana. You’re required to show your passport during the transaction. There is no black market in Cuba, so you don’t have to worry about getting the best rate, it’s the same rate across the country.
Note: Always count your change after making a payment and make sure if you paid in CUC that your change is also in CUC and not in CUP.
Traveling to Cuba may not be as affordable as other Latin American countries, but it isn’t super expensive either. Full detailed budget post coming soon!
Tipping is customary in Cuba, with 10-15% being normal in restaurants (check your bill to see if it’s included first) and $1-2 being appreciated in most other circumstances.
If you want to comply with the restrictions and support the Cuban people you’ll want to stay in casa particulares, which are essentially homestays. These are found all over Cuba and are a recent development in the economy.
In our eyes, homestays are one of the best things about visiting Cuba! Casa particulares are private residences registered with the Cuban government that usually charge $20 – $30 per night for a double room (some include breakfast).
Many of the casa owners are fantastic cooks and provide home-cooked meals for guests with dinner costing around 10 CUC per person. By far the best food we had in Cuba was made by our host families!
Most casas are first come first serve and since the internet is still not widespread in Cuba, many don’t have a web presence. However, you can still use Booking.com for some that do and if you use our link you can get $15 off your next booking when you have an account and a credit card linked.
Booking.com works differently in Cuba. First, you’ll notice it doesn’t show ratings for accommodation and secondly it may ask you to specify your category for travel. Booking.com doesn’t work from within Cuba without a VPN. So, it’s smart to take screenshots of your booking info before arrival.
Otherwise, contact hosts via email. In Havana, we highly recommend Casa Carlos y Graciela.
It’s just as easy to show up and figure things out on the ground. You can have a taxi take you to Havana Vieja where there are plenty of options, just look for the blue and white signs on the door.
Casa particulares operate on a word of mouth network and are happy to help you book the next place you’re going if you need assistance.
WiFi in Cuba doesn’t work the same way as it does in the rest of the world. It has become more widespread in recent years but you need to buy a wifi card first to access it.
The scratch-off cards contain a username and password and cost 5 CUC for 5 hours, or 1 CUC per hour. You can use them at various hot spots, usually parks or hotel lobbies. Some casa particulares have WiFi, but you’ll still need a card. Here is a list of WiFi hot spot locations in Havana.
You can buy the cards at Etecsa Telepunto stores. Expect to wait in line, but if you’re impatient you can usually buy them from a local or a hotel for 1-2 CUC more. Bring your passport when you go to get one!
Don’t expect WiFi speeds to be lightning-fast, streaming isn’t easy, but it should be sufficient for social media and web browsing. Some news media websites remain blocked by the government. The signal is the strongest in Havana, while smaller towns leave a lot to be desired.
Have a look at this post for more detailed WiFi in Cuba information.
What about SIM cards?
Check with your phone provider to see if your phone will work. In Cuba, it’s not as easy or inexpensive to get a SIM card. If you’re going for two weeks or less it’s probably not worth the hassle. You’ll only get 3G in Havana and worse elsewhere. If you really want one you can purchase it at an Etecsa Telepunto store for around 40 CUC. You’ll need to know some Spanish or go with someone who does and bring your passport along with an unlocked phone.
Otherwise, if you’re up for the challenge it’s nice to take time in Cuba to do a digital detox and not even bother with it. Now’s your chance to travel without the internet like people used to. You never realize how liberating that is until you try it. We really enjoyed 10 days away from social media!
Havana is mostly walkable, but when we needed to go across town or to another city we took a mix of classic car taxis and Viazul buses.
This is the website for Viazul buses. They’re nothing special, but inexpensive and comfortable enough. We recommend going to the bus station a day ahead to book your ticket for onward travel.
Apparently, you can also rent a car in Cuba, but we hear it’s not easy and it’s not cheap. Plus the companies are all owned by the government which as an American presents problems.
Bike taxis and pedicabs
These foot-powered taxis are slower, but a nice way to do some sightseeing around town if you’re sick of walking and want to support the locals. These guys work hard in the heat and can’t make much money so they appreciate tips. Rides are between 1-3 CUC.
Classic car rides and vintage taxis
Renting a classic car for cruising around downtown Havana will run anywhere from 30-50 CUC per hour. These cars are the nicest in the city and you’ll pay a premium to ride in one.
There are also vintage cars available for normal taxi rides in Havana. Those should cost between 5-15 CUC and are one of the cheapest ways to get around. Sure the cars aren’t as nice as the ones aimed at tourists for hourly rides, but it’ll give you a view into the local car culture.
Rides from the airport start at 35 CUC, but if you bargain you should be able to find one for 25 CUC.
Longer distances in vintage car taxis can get expensive. To save some money look for Colectivos (shared taxis) that tend to be much less. You can usually book them at your casa.
Note: Googling things on the fly or showing your taxi driver directions from your phone isn’t a thing in Cuba. Be sure you have screenshots or notes on your addresses and important info.
If you’ve got the time or just want to avoid taking tourist buses and mingle with more Cubans, consider taking the train. There is a rail network that extends the length of the island. For more info see Seat 61.
There are no required vaccinations to visit Cuba. Don’t be paranoid, but be careful about what you eat and drink and use your common sense. Don’t drink the tap water. It might be okay to brush your teeth with, but that’s up to you.
The bottled water Ciego Montero is rarely more than 1-2 CUC. However, we travel with the reusable Grayl Ultralight Water Purifier Bottle to avoid always buying plastic bottles and in case we’re in a situation where bottled water isn’t available.
It’s not a bad idea to carry your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer either.
Cuba is generally safe and has low rates of violent crime. Gun crime is not an issue and it’s statistically one of the safer countries in Latin America. Follow the basic precautions that you would anywhere else.
Be aware of street hustlers, aka jineteros. They usually speak English and go out of their way to appear friendly, but if they randomly approach you on the street they probably want something from you. It’s best to just avoid the situation and keep on walking.
Likewise, don’t buy things for people who approach you off the street asking for coffee or milk. It’s probably a scam.
Basic Spanish skills
Knowing at least basic Spanish is helpful in Cuba, especially when you’re doing things independently. You can still get by with English and hand signals if you need to, but it’s smart to have the Google translate app for use offline (just remember to download the Spanish language files before arriving).
Can I bring back Cuban cigars and rum?
Yes, you can bring both as long as it’s for personal consumption. You’re allowed one liter of alcohol if you’re 21 or older and up to 100 cigars duty-free if the total value is less than $800 according to US Customs and Border Protection.
Pro tip: Never buy cigars from the street hustlers in Havana, they’re almost certainly fake.
Finally, traveling to Cuba benefits the frail local economy which helps the citizens achieve a better life and that in itself is a good reason to go. Despite its social and economic problems, Cuba is a fantastic country with friendly and hospitable people.
It’s very safe and completely different than traveling anywhere else. Don’t go expecting everything to be up to Western standards. This country has been through a lot, but if you keep an open mind you’ll realize that’s why it’s special.
Traveling to this large one of a kind Caribbean island is like going back in time and there are few places left in the world you can honestly say that about. You just have to go see it for yourself!
We don’t always travel with guidebooks, but we found Lonely Planet Cuba to be an interesting and especially helpful read on our trip.
Maps.me is the best app to use for offline navigation in Cuba. Just be sure to download the maps before you arrive.
For more information visit the US travelers section of whynotcuba.com.
Check out more useful information about traveling to Cuba by Expert Vagabond.
If you’d like to go on a tour to Cuba consider contacting Cassandra at escapingny.com.
Have you been to Cuba? Planning a trip in 2020? If you have questions feel free to leave them in the comments…