Traveling to Cuba: it can seem so complicated and overwhelming that the average U.S. citizen may begin to wonder if it’s worth it. Don’t be intimidated! Once you figure out how to navigate all of the red tape, it’s not as difficult as it first appears. I spent weeks trying to track down all of the rules, regulations, and potential issues I may face when I was deciding whether or not to go. What I found was that while there are plenty of useful resources spread out across the internet, there isn’t one centralized place that makes it easy. So, I have compiled everything I learned into one simple guide for U.S. citizens who are thinking about embarking on the cultural experience of a lifetime.
To travel to Cuba, you will need 4 things:
Each of these are laid out in detail below with links to the associated U.S. regulations.
Valid U.S. Passport
This should be the easiest one. For frequent travelers, just ensure that you have at least 2 blank passport pages. Cuba does not enforce the 6-month rule (many foreign countries require that you passport be valid for at least another 6 months at the time of entry, per the U.S. Department of State, Cuba is not one of them). The only potential complication you may face is if you are a Cuban-born U.S. citizen (see below).
If you are a Cuban-born U.S. Citizen: Cuba does not recognize the U.S. nationality of Cuban-born U.S. citizens. Cuban-born U.S. citizens will be treated as Cuban citizens and may be subject to restrictions and obligations. The Cuban government requires such individuals to enter and depart Cuba using Cuban passports. More information on this restriction can be found on the U.S. Department of State’s website.
Often referred to as a Tourist Card, a Cuban Visa (as long as you aren’t a Cuban-born U.S. citizen) is an easy document to obtain. Most U.S. airlines now flying to Cuba have partnered with an agency to provide this service. Southwest, for example, is partnered with Cuba Travel Services (CTS). As a Southwest passenger, you can currently get your Cuban Visa for $50 (the regular rate through CTS is more, ensure you use the special link Southwest sends you after you book your ticket to get their negotiated rate). Alaskan Airlines has a similar arrangement with CTS (for $85). Again, check with your airline for their process and what services they utilize. With CTS, you simply fill out the one-page application online and print out a proof of purchase page. For our flight with Southwest, a CTS agent was set up right next to the Gate in Ft. Lauderdale with our Tourist Cards all ready to be filled out.
Supplemental Medical Insurance
The Cuban government requires that all passengers traveling from the U.S. have local Cuban health insurance. Without it, you will not be permitted into the country. The insurance is relatively inexpensive, and some airlines include your insurance as a part of the fee for your ticket. For example, when purchasing a Southwest or Alaskan Airlines ticket to Cuba, Cuban health insurance is included as a mandatory fee. For Southwest, your airline ticket is proof of your insurance, and you need to keep it on you during your trip in case of emergency. Check with your individual airline about 1) if they provide the insurance in your fee (if not, see if they have any recommended vendors–many companies sell policies) and 2) what the terms and conditions are for the policy. You can always purchase a supplemental policy if you don’t feel that it provides enough coverage for your potential needs.
Reason for Travel
This is the most complicated requirement. You cannot simply go to Cuba for a “vacation.” To travel to Cuba, you must have a reason the U.S. government deems valid, often referred to as a RFTV. Most U.S. travelers journey to Cuba using one of the 12 General License categories. Per the U.S. Department of Treasury, if you qualify for travel under one of the 12 General License categories, you do not need to contact the U.S. government about your travel plans or obtain any type of specific approval (no OFAC license is required). However, increased restrictions have been imposed on some of the license categories as of November 9, 2017 (like Educational activities and Support for the Cuban people). Additional information on these changes can be found below in my section notes or at the U.S. Treasury Department’s FAQ.
The 12 General License Categories are listed below. To fully understand the definition and restrictions for a category, simply click on it. I have linked each one directly to the U.S. regulation that governs that specific General License category.
Family visits to Cuban nationals
Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
Professional research and professional meetings
Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
Support for the Cuban people
Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
Certain authorized export transactions
Every U.S. airline that flies to Cuba has a slightly different process in place to meet the General License certification requirement. There isn’t a whole lot you need to do ahead of time other than know which category of travel your General License falls under. When you get to the airport, the airline will request what your reason for travel is for documentation purposes. Some do this in the form of a signed travel affidavit, some just put the reason you give them into their system and mark your ticket.
I traveled with Southwest, and they requested my license reason at check-in, and then put a red “RFTV” stamp on my ticket to show they had validated it. Alaskan Airline’s, on the other hand, requires that you fill our and print a copy of their affidavit form to bring with you. Check with your carrier what their process is. More than likely, they have it laid out on their website or will email you directly explaining it all after you book. It is to the airlines’ benefit to make this process as easy as possible for you!
People to People Travel Note: People to People travel is permitted with authorized companies that fall within U.S. jurisdiction (for example, Gate1). Under President Obama, individual People to People travel was permitted, but President Trump’s new regulations released November 9, 2017 removed that authorization. However, if you have proof of at least one reservation made prior to his initial June 16, 2017 announcement, you are still grandfathered into the President Obama policy. A FAQ on President Trump’s announcement can be found here; any additional updates to U.S.-Cuba travel regulations since the publishing of this article can be found here.
Support for the Cuban People Note: Per the new November 9, 2017 regulations, the U.S. government is requiring that each traveler under this travel category “engage in a full-time schedule of activities that result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. Such activities must also enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities. Renting a room in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self- employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) are examples of authorized activities; however, in order to meet the requirement of a full-time schedule, a traveler must engage in additional authorized Support for the Cuban People activities.” (If you booked something for your trip prior to November 9, 2017, you are exempt.)
Educational Activities Note: Per the new November 9, 2017 regulations, most travelers going to Cuba for educational activities must be accompanied by a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction who is an employee, paid consultant, agent, or other representative of the sponsoring organization. More information can be found in the U.S. Treasury Department’s FAQ. (If you booked something for your trip prior to November 9, 2017, you are exempt.)
Specific License Note (DOES NOT APPLY TO THOSE REQUESTING A GENERAL LICENSE): Per the U.S. Department of Treasury, if you determine that a general license does not apply, you may apply for a specific license here by using the online application process. OFAC will consider the issuance of specific licenses on a case-by-case basis when a general license provision is not available. Please note, this is a much more complicated process, and there is no guarantee that your request will be granted.
Cuba Travel Audit Note: You can technically be subject to random audit by the U.S. government for up to 5 years, so maintain any necessary justification documentation. You are expected to keep a copy of your travel itinerary, any support documentation, etc. Under President Obama, this was not being enforced; however, President Trump has announced that the government will be implementing a more comprehensive random audit process.
Other Important Things to Know Before You Go
U.S. credit cards, debit cards, and checks do not work in Cuba. Bring cash to cover your entire stay.* Bring more cash than you think you will need; you do not want to run out of money. You will need to convert your money into the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) upon arrival in Cuba. Only convert what you know you will spend during your trip; you can always convert more later. If you are paying a tour operator in cash upon arrival, check what currency they would like to be paid in before departing. Some would rather receive EUR or US, some only want CUC.
The Government of Cuba charges a 10 percent fee for all U.S. dollar cash conversions. That, in consolation with a 2-3% currency exchange fee, will give you between 0.87-0.88 CUC per USD. Plan your budget accordingly. I looked into exchanging my USD to Euros at the bank before going since I had read that recommendation a few places, but I found that I made out worse by the time I exchanged from USD to EUR to CUC. Do a little research to confirm what is best before departure. You can exchange money in Cuba at the airport, most banks, and currency exchanges. You will find banks/currency exchanges in pretty much every major city. If you plan to be in the countryside, ensure you have enough local currency before heading out.
The Cuban government requires that travelers declare cash amounts over 5,000 USD. If you are traveling as a couple and plan to carry more than $5,000 but less than $10,000, just make sure that neither of you has more than $5,000 on you.
Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). The CUC is worth 25 times as much as the CUP and is tied to the USD (thus the stable exchange rate). Cuba has announced that they plan to abolish the dual currency system, but as of this writing, that promise has not materialized. As a tourist, with the exception of rare instances, you really only need to worry about the CUC. For the most part, the restaurants you eat in, the goods you buy, etc will be priced in CUC (you will notice that some places provide pricing in both).
The main reason travelers need to be aware of this dual currency is to keep an eye out when receiving change. It has been known to happen from time to time that an unsavory merchant will take advantage of unsuspecting tourists who do not know the difference between the CUC and CUP and provide their change in CUPs. There is an easy way to tell the difference between the two currencies. The CUC (what you want) always has the image of a monument on it (both the bills and the coins). The CUP (the cheaper currency) always has the image of a famous Cuban person on it (a headshot). Below is an example of the two Cuban currencies. On the left, you see a CUC; on the right, a CUP.
*Only two American credit cards are accepted in Cuba: Stonegate Bank and Banco Popular de Puerto Rico. However, the country very much operates on a cash economy in most places; even if you have one of these cards, most of the local restaurants and shops do not take credit card like they do in the United States.
On November 9, 2017, the U.S. government issued a new prohibition on direct financial transactions with entities and subentries on the Cuba Restricted List. These entities have been deemed “under the control of, or acting for or on behalf of, the Cuban military, intelligence, or security services or personnel with which direct financial transactions would disproportionately benefit such services or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise in Cuba.” U.S. citizens are no longer permitted to have any direct transactions with these entities. The list includes hotels, stores, and tourist agencies, so pay close attention to it when planning your trip. On the bright side, per the State Department’s FAQs, “entities or subentities that are owned or controlled by another entity or subentity on the Cuba Restricted List are not treated as restricted unless also specified by name on the list.” So you don’t have to worry about the complications of parent-companies and affiliated companies that can get very complicated in Cuba. If it’s not on the list, it’s ok.
Regardless of the hotels that are or aren’t on the list, though, homestays, also knowns as Casa Particulares, are still my favorite way to travel Cuba. The Cuban government allows its citizens to rent rooms to travelers for extra income. This is a great way to support the Cuban people and learn more about their daily life. You can rent anything from a bedroom in a Cuban’s home to a B&B type accommodation to a full apartment/house. AirBNB has a plethora of options in all price ranges, and you can book directly with the owners/pay online. If you hire a tour guide, they can often also recommend places or even reserve them for you before your arrival. Many tour packages will already include your lodging, as well.
Note: Double-check the Cuban Restricted list before making your final bookings as it will be updated periodically. Per the U.S. Treasury, transactions will be permitted provided that those arrangements were initiated prior to the State Department’s addition of an entity or subentity to the list. Once the State Department adds an entity or subentity to the Cuba Restricted List, new direct financial transactions with the entity or subentity will not be permitted (unless authorized by OFAC or exempt). (So, if you made bookings at a restricted entity prior to November 9, 2017, you’re still ok.)
Transportation & Guide Services
If you plan to hire a tourist agency or rent a car, check the Cuba Restricted List first. U.S. citizens can rent cars in Cuba, however, I really don’t recommend it. It’s complicated, the roads are a mess, and the city street signage can be quite confusing. I also suggest you avoid the public transportation system unless you are really looking for an adventure (and not the fun kind). The buses are jam-packed, not air-conditioned, and seem to run on their own timetables, and the trains are even worse and often don’t run at all. I would recommend hiring a driver/guide for transportation from city to city and other excursions. You can certainly try to hire someone after arriving (many drivers are willing to make arrangements for the right price), but I would plan ahead to avoid the stress. We used a local, privately-owned company, Wijincuba, to do our trip. They managed all of our transportation and itinerary which made everything easy and enjoyable. You can find a list of other well-rated companies on TripAdvisor, as well.
Restrictions On What You Can Bring Back
Gone are the days when Cuban cigars and rum were forbidden to enter the United States with travelers. While you still can’t purchase them at the corner store here, you can most certainly bring them home with you. The current restrictions are as follows. Per the U.S. Department of Treasury (as of November 2017), “Persons authorized to travel to Cuba may purchase alcohol and tobacco products while in Cuba for personal consumption. Authorized travelers may also return to the United States with alcohol and/or tobacco products acquired in Cuba as accompanied baggage for personal use. OFAC considers ‘personal use’ of an imported item to include giving the item to another individual as a personal gift, but not the transfer of the item to another person for payment or other consideration.” All normal U.S. limits on duty and exemptions apply.
But wait, don’t the Cuban people hate the United States?
Anyone we encountered in Cuba was excited to see us. I felt no hostility because of my nationality. If anything, they were pleasantly surprised to find U.S. citizens were still coming in the wake of the warnings. The Cuban people on the whole were excited to share their culture with us and learn more about our lives, as well. They were welcoming and friendly. The only way to truly bridge divides is to travel, share, and listen. As long as you are friendly and respectful, they will be, too!
Isn’t Cuba run by the military? Will I be surrounded by guards with machine guns?
Cuba is run by the military, but it is barely noticeable. Only at high-profile places (government buildings, sacred monuments, embassies) will you even see the military patrolling, and even then it’s fairly low-key. There is a regular police force, as well, but they were about as prevalent as you would see police in any U.S. city. I found a much heavier armed military presence in Spain and Turkey than I ever saw in Cuba.
How safe are the cities?
Cuban cities are about as safe as the average U.S. city. While some streets may not look all that safe (ramshackle buildings, crumbling infrastructure), I never felt my safety was compromised, and we clearly stood out like a sore thumb with our city map and camera snapping away. If anything, the citizens seemed to watch out for the tourists staying in their neighborhoods. I never felt hassled or continuously bothered to buy things like I have in some other foreign countries. Obviously, like in any city, you must use your common sense. Lock up valuables, don’t flash around expensive items, and don’t dawdle in unlit areas at night, but overall, Cuba felt extremely safe.
The new U.S. travel warnings have me nervous; should I still go?
This is a personal decision that everyone has to make for themselves. I wasn’t all that concerned that I would face a sonic attack n the middle of the night at my AirBNB; there has been no reported incidents by tourists to date. Most of the Cuban people feel their government is not behind the attacks since there is no perceived benefit (tourist dollars from the U.S. are much needed). Whether it was Cuba’s government or it was a third party, at the end of the day, you just have to decide whether you think this issue really affects you as a tourist or not.
One Final Note On Cuban History
Cuba-U.S. relations have had a complicated history. Most guidebooks will give you the Cliffs Notes version of events. If you really want to delve into Cuba’s history, though, the Netflix original mini-series, The Cuba Libre Story, is an excellent documentary. It covers the island’s history from pre-colonization to today and provides some great insight into our complex relationship with our neighbor to the south. I highly recommend watching it before traveling to Cuba.