How To Travel To Cuba With A US Passport: What an American Needs To Know Before Going To Cuba
is one of the most mysterious destinations for Americans…
Because it was forbidden for so long…
That has changed. kinda…..
It used to be that you could not go to Cuba unless you sought out special permission. Things changed a lot in 2014. Now, you can travel to Cuba with a United States Passport without jumping through hoops. However, you must have a valid reason for going to Cuba. This can also change in the near future.
Update: In June 2017 President Trump announced new restrictions on Travel to Cuba from the United States by U.S. Citizens. These changes include the enforcement of travel restrictions to Cuba and serious eliminations of solo travel categories to Cuba. Click here to learn more about the new changes to rules on travel to Cuba.
Can Americans Travel to Cuba Legally?
Yes, if you go for a valid reason. You get a license based upon your reason for going. United States Citizens can not go to Cuba as tourists. Again, Americans can not go to Cuba merely for vacation. You must go under one of the twelve permissible licenses. You do not have to ask permission to go if you fall under one of these 12 categories.
The twelve (12) permissible reasons (licenses) for going to Cuba are:
- 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;
- and certain authorized export transactions.
Most people who go to Cuba qualify to go under one of the above licenses. You are advised to plan a full-time schedule and to keep records of your activities for five (5) years.
What Airlines go from the United States to Cuba?
Currently, many airlines fly directly from the United States to Cuba. These include:
Does a US Citizen need a Visa to Enter Cuba? What does a US Citizen Need To Travel To Cuba?
Yes. You will need a Visa Card to Enter Cuba. Most of the airlines with flights to Cuba provide one the ability to purchase a Visa at the airport. The stated prices of the visa range. As of this writing, the one you need is pink. You need one side to enter and one side to depart from the country. The stated cost at Jetblue is $50 and on AA is $85.
A U.S. citizen (born in the US) needs the following documents to travel to Cuba:
- A valid United States Passport. (Must be valid for entire stay) (Two Passport Pages are stated to be needed, though there are many stories of passports not being stamped;
- Health Insurance covering the territory of Cuba (Jetblue includes insurance in the price of the fair and AA seems to add $25 to the ticket price for insurance);
- A Cuban Visa
If you are a Cuban National with US Residence or a Cuban resident, the above might not apply to you. The Jetblue Cuba FAQ linked here gives a good overview, so rather than repeat the information there, I have provided a link to it.
Where can a US Citizen get a Visa to Travel to Cuba?
Most Airlines will have a method of buying a visa at the gate. Please call ahead to confirm this.
What Travel Guides should I use when traveling to Cuba?
I used the Lonely Planet Cuba guide (This is the paperback edition). It was pretty updated even though it was several years old. Not everything was accurate but the truth is, Cuba is changing daily, as are our relationship with the country and what is going on with respect to travel there. I found the maps useful as well as much of the information. Some places had gone out of business. So goes the territory. It was in general, a very helpful item.
What Apps should I download before going to Cuba?
Remember, Wifi and internet access are really difficult to come by and not so yet reliable in Cuba. If you are taking a phone or device, you should make sure that it is not pulling data or connecting to a roaming tower. The best apps for use in Cuba are apps that can be used without connection to a network. The best Cuba apps run offline. Remember, wifi is not going to be readily available. Consider the following:
- Google translate has modules you can download for offline translations in Spanish.
- Ala Mesa is a cool app that has listings of restaurants all over Cuba and works offline. You should try it…
- Airbnb, downloaded before you leave, is a good app to use to find a place if you are nervous about just showing up and want to pay with a US credit card before you leave.
- Remember if someone refers you to a casa particular, chances are it will be factored into the bill. This includes Airbnb (update: Several Casa owners have informed me that Airbnb is not currently charging them a fee). While I don’t know what they get, casas listed are often more expensive than more competitive walk in street prices you may find or negotiate.
- Map of Cuba offline -seriously, don’t leave home without downloading this app or something similar
- Wificuba2.0 this app will tell you where to buy wifi cards and where to find wifi all over Cuba. You will need an ETECSA card to use wifi. Also, tells you prices for wifi cards directly purchased from ETECSA. When you get the wifi card or access elsewhere, there seems to be a premium on it and some additional cost.
- WhatsApp or signal so that you can talk to friends at home using WiFi. Make sure that they also have the apps on their phone.
What is Wifi Like in Cuba?
Wifi and internet access are really difficult to come by and not so yet reliable in Cuba. It is similar to the dial-up culture of the 1990s, but with wifi. Your speeds will not be quick and in many places, lots of people will be using the same connection at the same time. Wifi is obtained in certain places, particularly hotel lobbies and parks. Basically in order to use the wifi, you must purchase an ETECSA card, which will allow you to log on to the company’s wifi network. The Wificuba2.0 app will tell you where to buy wifi cards and where to find wifi all over Cuba. There are also people who sell wifi cards on the streets and in the park for a premium price but these are not authorized and you do not know what you are buying. You are advised to stick to authorized sales outlets, like the ETECSA stores.
I was able to go to the ETECSA store in Santa Clara and purchase two 5 hour wifi cards for 20 CUC. The cards were green and have a login and password. The password has to be scratched off with a coin. If you find yourself being sold a card in which the password is already showing, beware. I was able to line up with the Cubans waiting at the ETECSA store near the park. Everyone who walked up asked who was “ultimo” and the line was not necessarily linear but rather a waiting area in which everyone was respectful and orderly and aware of who had what place in line relative to everyone else. This line or waiting took place outside of the store on steps. A guard controlled the door and only let the next person in line in. When I entered the store, I went to a counter, explained what I wanted in my broken Spanish “nesesito un wifi card.” (Note, never brag about your broken Spanish, learn to speak better). I was asked if I wanted an hour and I put my hand up and said “cinco”. The woman at the store went into a box and got me a five hour card. Then I said dos (2). I was handed two five hour cards and charged 20 CUC. I was given a receipt. I then walked to the park and struggled to log in. After a while, I finally figured it out. I put my phone in airplane mode, and turned on wifi. The phone, a Google Nexus 6 asked me to log into the ETECSA network and after a couple of attempts magic happened and I was able to get on Facebook and Instagram. I also responded to Gmail and got text messages. It seems my T-Mobile wifi calling was enabled and allowing me to receive SMS texts. I got a bunch that I had missed once I put my phone into airplane mode.
What does an American need to know about exchanging money in Cuba?
CASH IS KING!!
In Cuba, you will use a form of currency called the CUC or Cuban Convertible Peso. For international exchange purposes it is worth $1 (one U.S. Dollar). However, this is not its value to you. You will have to exchange your currency to obtain the CUCs.
DO NOT RELY ON CREDIT IN CUBA!
DO NOT RELY ON NON-CUC FORMS OF PAYMENT IN CUBA!
Cuba is an emerging country. The internet is still not really readily accessible. Do not assume you will be able to use a credit card or get access to your bank or foreign accounts or assets. Such assumptions will most likely end in tears, as they did for this person. If you run out of money, there is an embassy link at the bottom of this page which may help. Print the information and take it with you. After all, if you think you will be sitting in Cuba with no money and will be able to get online, well, you have set yourself up to fail.
DO NOT TRAVEL TO CUBA WITHOUT ENOUGH MONEY!
Seriously, going to Cuba without enough money is not a good idea. You should have enough to cover your food, expenses, taxis to and from the airport and elsewhere, and extra in case things go wrong, like having to go back and forth to the airport for several days if your flight is cancelled and paying for taxis to do so (it happened to me after a hurricane). Taxis can be $25 each or more in some cases.
Exchanging Your money for CUCs
Each 1CUC is worth $1. But to exchange and get CUCs you must pay exchange fees. The cost of converting currency is approximately 3%. HOWEVER…..
If you convert US Dollars, an additional 10% is assessed. Yep. So that means that you are at $0.87 per dollar at most places and some places may cost more. If you want to have convenience, just chalk 10% up to the game. If you are trying to get some of that 10% back, follow what I call the Jay-Z Rule to Cuban Currency:
“Euros, that’s right plural…”
I suggest, if you can get a good rate, convert your money to Euros and take them with you. Beware of playing with the game of currency exchange though, if you don’t get a good rate, you will lose even more in some cases. Basically, you are trying to win back some of that 10%. If you lose 5% in the exchange that is five cents on every dollar that you save. I didn’t get the best rate from TD Bank. You should be strategic about this. Also consider Canadian Dollars, which at the time of this writing, were only assessed the 3%, rather than bringing Dollars to convert. Of course, you can always bring some mix of the different currencies. Many Americans are not used to this phenomenon, but people will not jump at your dollars and without exchanging them to CUC, they will be virtually useless. The initial taxi driver I encountered wanted nothing to do with American dollars.
Where to Exchanging Your Currency for CUCs
I exchanged my currency at the airport in Santa Clara and got a good rate. The person at the airport was very thorough with the counting and inspection of all currency. She counted the bills at least three times, ran them through a counter machine then counted them again. Because of her attention to detail, the transaction took some time. There was a huge line. I can see why some would mistake her attention to detail for being slow if they were not the current customer.
Things in Cuba don’t happen the way Americans are used to. We lined up at the airport window in Santa Clara and the person left. After 5 minutes we went to another window on the other side of the airport. A group of men appeared that looked like armored car guards with a locked bag. We were then told the window was closed for money exchange and that we had to go to another window. The same window we left. By then the line was very long. Get used to lines in Cuba. You will potentially be on them. If you have the big American city need for instant gratification, especially with service, you may be disappointed. Let me be clear, I never encountered anyone who made me wait for anything. I did encounter a culture that concentrates on the task at hand and does so with detail before moving on the next task or customer.
Can I buy Cigars in Cuba and bring them back to the United States? Can I import Cuban Cigars for Personal Use?
You can purchase cigars and bring them back. There was, until recently, a $100 restriction on bringing back rum and cigars but that has since been lifted. There are still restrictions, but they are the general restrictions imposed on such imports by the United States.
Where should I stay in Cuba?
You can stay in a hotel or an Airbnb. You can also stay in a Casa Particular.
Is Airbnb Big in Cuba? What is a Casa Particular?
Airbnb is thriving in Cuba. It brings with it tremendous advantages as well! One of the biggest advantages it brings is being able to pay with a United States Credit Card and being able to prepay your lodging before you leave. This is arguably a big deal and brings a tremendous comfort to some.
What is Airbnb? It is a site that allows you to stay in the homes of others. Sometimes these are places where people live and in many situations, they are like Bed and breakfast lodging situations. A couple of places in Santa Clara, for instance, were just that, with the person running the place living in-house with the family as well in one of the rooms. We were able to get lodging for $30-$40 a night in amazing places using Airbnb, including a Penthouse with a private Balcony overlooking the ocean in Havana’s Varadero District. Having a local to ask basic questions of has its own value as well.
Long before Airbnb, Cuba used the Casa Particular system. It is basically Airbnb without the company. People are allowed by the government to rent out rooms in their homes in order to make extra money. If you are every stuck and need a place to stay, you can simply look for a casa particular sign and inquire about a room. Many travelers simply show up in different parts of the county and inquire at different places about whether a room is available. While this may seem crazy to some, after having flights canceled and having no room book, this system became a great source of comfort on one trip, as several casa owners informed me that they had a room available during a period when it was not clear when I might get a flight out due to a hurricane which hit Cuba but had gone on to the US and shut flights down.
Use this referral link for a travel credit from Airbnb towards your reservation!!!! Disclosure: we get credit towards our adventures as well when you use it!
How do I travel in Cuba from town to town?
Interprovince travel in Cuba can be accomplished by using the Viazul bus. Viazul is the bus you take from city to city. This is the bus that foreigners are authorized to travel on. If you need an English page, check the option on the top right of the webpage. You seriously need to buy your tickets well in advance. This is not a joke. The company takes reservations.
You can also hire a private car or taxi to take you where you have to go. There are also collectivos, which are taxi collectives which sell shared seats in a taxi. Some have reported this to be a very affordable and effective way to travel. However, please note that you may not be on your timeline in such circumstances and your comfort might not be the same as in a private car or the Viazul bus, which is generally air conditioned.
What Medical and Health Considerations Should People Traveling to Cuba Consider?
Americans traveling to Cuba should take the following health precautions:
- Visit your medical provider for a check-up
- Bring a 30 day supply of medicine you may need with you. Even if this seems like overkill, there are plenty of stories about people who have had to stay in Cuba longer than they thought (including the author)
- Visit the CDC site
- Consider your medical insurance. You need to make sure you are covered for medical emergencies.
- Consider purchasing medical evacuation insurance for your trip. This could save you tens of thousands of dollars should it be necessary to get you home because of an emergency.
- Drink bottled or filtered water (I purchased a lifestraw water bottle and used it for the regular water in Santa Clara and Havana)(Confession: I also purchased a regular life straw but the life straw water bottle was the straw in a water bottle and seemed way better suited for travel.)
- Stay Hydrated
- Use Sunscreen/Sunblock
- Use insect repellent (learn about ZIka in Cuba from the CDC)
- Don’t eat undercooked food or food that might not have been cleaned with bottled or filtered water.
Things to consider when Traveling with Kids in Cuba
I have been asked to add a section on traveling with children in Cuba. The biggest advice that someone traveling from the U.S. to Cuba should consider is: bring every supply that you might need. This includes enough snacks for your children during the trip. The stores in Cuba are not going to be what you are used to. They will not have many items and even the ones that do have things will not necessarily have the types of products that you are accustomed to. Bring enough diapers for your trip. Do not assume that you will just be able to pick something up when you get there.
Helpful Cuba Web Resources for Americans Traveling to Cuba:
It is very helpful to learn Celsius to Fahrenheit conversions. Also kilometers are used, you should know miles vs kilometers.