Despite lying only 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba unfortunately isn’t a top destination for most Americans. Widespread confusion about how to travel to Cuba legally, or whether it’s legal at all, deters most Americans from visiting this beautiful Caribbean island. But traveling to Cuba as an American is actually very simple and very worthwhile. Here’s everything you need to know about traveling to Cuba as an American.
IN THIS POST:
SUPPORT FOR THE CUBAN PEOPLE (ABOUT THE regulation, WHAT ACTIVITIES QUALIFY, MY RECOMMENDATIONS)
Contrary to popular belief, it is legal for Americans to travel to Cuba, even after President Trump’s new trade policies cut back on U.S.-Cuba relations. But with all the confusing information out there, it can be a bit daunting to plan your trip as an American. That’s why I’ve compiled everything Americans need to know to travel to Cuba legally.
Disclaimer: Always refer to your government’s current State Department website for updated and accurate information, and do not construe my tips and experience as legal advice. Keep receipts and a detailed itinerary, because, in theory, you could be asked about your trip to Cuba for as long as five years after you get home.
For the first time in some 50 years, former President Obama opened up Cuban-American relations, but current President Trump has since tightened them back up. Thankfully, Trump’s new policies had little impact on traveling to Cuba, so don’t be deterred.
Officially, under January 2019 American travel restrictions, United States citizens can visit Cuba only under one of 12 different “categories” of travel. “Tourism” isn’t one of them, and the former “people to people” category which functioned as a tourism catch-all has been eliminated by Trump.
In truth, the U.S. regulations for travel to Cuba are not clearly defined and are rarely enforced.
Many travelers believe that the only way to visit Cuba is with an organized tour group that will ensure all regulations and requirements are followed and met. However, I’d advice against large “copy & paste” tour groups, which tend to take people to tourist traps and low-quality restaurants (those who visit Cuba through large tour groups like this are generally the same people who tell me they didn’t love Cuba, and I can understand why).
Instead, I recommend traveling under the “support for the Cuban people” category which gives you the most flexibility and control over your activities, and an overall better travel experience.
Support For The Cuban People
Traveling under the “support for the Cuban people” category will allow you to create your own personalized itinerary and to travel, generally speaking, alone around the country. This category requires your main purpose in Cuba to be for the benefit, both financially and socially, of locals.
You must maintain a full schedule of activities that are “intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba” and that “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba.” For the exact text of the regulation, click here.
Sound vague? Well, that’s because it is. Generally speaking, the regulations function on an “honor system,” removing the previously required paperwork and now allowing Americans to just check a box and go.
The regulation itself includes some examples of what would and wouldn’t be sufficient, but those are pretty vague also.
But it seems like there are two different focuses you can have in order to qualify under this category of travel license: either traveling with a focus on supporting local businesses, or volunteering.
1) Option A: Focus on local businesses
Plan to stay at casas particulares and Airbnbs instead of state-run hotels, eat at privately owned restaurants called paladares (it’s not always obvious what restaurants are government-run or privately-run, but you can always ask an employee), book transport with private drivers instead state-run taxis, shop at privately-owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropista), and hire self-employed locals for city tours or salsa lessons or cooking classes.
“Support for the Cuban people” can also mean having meaningful conversations with locals about their lives and businesses, including chatting with your casa particular host over breakfast about life and culture in Cuba.
The regulation also suggests that merely sleeping and eating at privately-owned restaurants and accommodations, or having brief conversations with your waiters at lunch isn’t sufficient. Keep in mind that you still need to have a “full-time” schedule (around 6 hours a day, with the exception of travel days and weekends), so you’ll likely need to combine all of these activities on your daily schedule.
As a general rule, if you’re having a conversations with casa hosts about Cuban life/culture over breakfast, and spending the day “supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately-owned businesses” (think: private drivers, private restauranteurs, private clothing designers, private tour guides, etc.) then you should be fine.
Some of my favorite casas particulares in Cuba:
I do recommend booking in advance with Airbnb, where there are tons of beautiful homestay options run by extremely hospitable hosts. If you try to find places when you arrive, you might end up in some much dingier living quarters.
For 40 USD off your first Airbnb booking, which you can use to book privately-owned/managed homestays in Cuba, sign up here!
Some of my favorite locally run activities in Cuba:
Rent a vintage car from a private owner and drive around Central and Old Havana
Take a salsa class at La Casa Del Son
Hire local farmers in Vinales to take you on a horseback riding tour of the countryside, tobacco farms, etc (can be booked through most casas particulares)
Hire a private guide to show you around Trinidad and teach you about its history
Book your casa particular host for a private cooking class
2) Option B: Volunteering
If you choose to volunteer in order to qualify under the “support for the Cuban people” category, be sure to do so with a recognized non-governmental organization that supports the local community, like building a school for underserved Cuban children or teaching a nutrition class to parents.
Volunteering will generally constitute a “full-time schedule” of activities all on its own, so when you’re not working, feel free to visit a museum, picnic in the park, or rent a bike and aimlessly wander the streets of Havana.
Not only does volunteering abroad ensure you’re leaving a positive footprint on the country you’re visiting, but it often enables you to build cross-cultural relationships that might otherwise be impossible. You’ll also be able experience a more authentic side of a country’s culture, because you’ll be having more conversations with locals about important issues, spending time in less-touristy areas, getting a glimpse into daily life for local residents, and often getting tips for where to go/what to do/where to eat that you’d never find in a guidebook.
Plus, it’s probably good for Americans and Cubans to have more meaningful interactions — whether its about difficult topics or just normal shared human experiences — considering the rampant misinformation (within both countries) about the other country, and our history of painful international relations.
For organizations that can help you organize a longer-term (more than 1-2 days) volunteer project while in Cuba, check out:
Activities That Don't Qualify
What isn’t included in the Support for the Cuban People category? Days spent lounging on the beach drinking a mojito, excessive “free-time,” or spending any money at enterprises on the U.S.-government issued Cuba Restricted List (certain state-run entities which the U.S. government suspects have military ties).
I recommend keeping a printed or downloaded copy of list on hand during your travels. The list isn’t very long, but does include Ernest Hemingway’s famous old home at the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana, and the widely sold Tropicola soft drink.
Visa And Immigration Process
Personally, I found the Cuba visa/immigration process to be one of the easiest I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. Below you’ll find answers to all your Cuba visa-related questions to help you feel at ease before your trip.
Booking Your Flight
Many major U.S. carriers now fly to Cuba regularly, including American Airlines, United, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest. Generally you’ll have a layover in Houston, Charlotte, or Miami, before continuing on to Cuba.
Although it’s possible to use airline-issued frequent flyer miles to book flights to Cuba, you won’t have much luck using your U.S.-based bank rewards points, considering almost no U.S.-based banks do business in or with Cuba.
Getting Your Visa
Americans will need either a pink or green tourist/visa card to enter Cuba. The pink card is for entry from the U.S., and the green card is for entry from any country other than the U.S. The green tourist cards are less expensive, but you’ll first need to get to Canada or Mexico to get it. It’s no longer necessary to fly to Cuba “illegally” through Mexico as some Americans did prior to 2015, but you can sometimes find really, really cheap flights flying out of Cancun or Mexico City.
You can pre-order your visa online. It’s valid for 180 days after issuance for trips of up to 30 days (but can be renewed for an additional 30 days once in Cuba). However, it’s more expensive to purchase the visa card online, and not usually necessary, so I don’t recommend this..
Instead, most major U.S. airlines that fly to Cuba, including JetBlue, Delta, Southwest, United, and American Airlines, will allow you took purchase your visa at the gate before your final leg en route to Cuba. Prices range from 50-95 USD, and require only a boarding pass, passport, and credit card.
Step-by-step Instructions for getting your Visa Day-of travel
Step 1: Book your flight and chose the category of travel under which your trip falls (I chose “support for the Cuban people”) on the drop-down menu under my booking details;
Step 2: Go to the airport, and complete check-in in person with your passport.
Step 3: Go through security and head to your gate. There will be someone at your gate selling tourist cards (i.e. visas) that you can purchase on the spot with your credit card, and then fill out on your flight. Do not lose this card or make a mistake filling it out, because if you need a replacement, you’ll have to buy another one.
If you have a domestic layover on the way to Cuba, you won’t need to pick up your visa before that flight. You will only pick up the visa before boarding the flight that will land you in Cuba (most likely a flight out of Houston, Charlotte, or Miami).
Step 4: You’ll also need to fill out another immigration form that just requests your basic information, but your flight attendants will give this to you on the plane.
Step 5: Stand in line at Cuba immigration; hand them your visa card and other immigration form, then take it back and keep it somewhere safe.
Step 6: Go enjoy Cuba.
Coming back into the United States from Cuba is even simpler. Cuba immigration will ask for your visa card, but I didn’t have mine on hand so they just let me through without it. After landing in America, go through immigration like you would on any other international flight.
From my experience, U.S. immigration asked zero questions (even the typical “how are you today?” or “traveling on business or pleasure?”) — just stamped my passport and let me through. I have Global Entry which made the process impossibly easy, but my travel buddy proceeded through the normal immigration line and also received no questions from immigration officials.
On the off-chance they ask questions, just be prepared with your itinerary from the trip, and as many receipts as you were able to keep or photograph.
Currency Exchange, Credit Cards, and ATMs
Cuba has two forms of currency, the Cuban Peso Nacional (CUP) for locals and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC, pronounced “cook” or “cooks”) for foreigners. 25 CUP equals about 1 USD, and 1 CUC equals about 1 USD (thank goodness).
Although foreigners aren’t supposed to use CUPs, it’s not illegal. You might find them useful for street food, local peso restaurants, ice cream stands, or tipping.
But generally speaking, as a foreigner, you’ll almost never come into contact with CUPs, unless you’re accidentally given CUPs in change rather than CUCs. Keep an eye out for this when receiving change, because it’s a huge bummer to realize you got 10 CUPs (about 39 cents) in change for that taxi ride when you were supposed to get 10 CUCs (about 10 USD).
You can only receive Cuban pesos once you land in Cuba, and won’t be able to purchase or make exchanges for CUCs in advance of your trip. Airports, exchanges houses around cities, major banks, and most hotels (and even some Airbnbs and casas particulares) will usually allow you to exchange money.
You can, technically, exchange United States Dollars (USD) for CUC at currency exchange offices in Cuba. However, expect to be charged a 10% penalty charge for doing so.
Instead, I recommend heading to your bank before leaving America and withdrawing money in Euros. When exchanging Euros in Cuba, you’ll get a pretty accurate exchange rate, and won’t be slapped with the 10% penalty charge. I needed about 630 USD for my 8-day trip (about 550 Euros), which did not include accommodations (these were prepaid through Airbnb), but did include some excessive eating at pricier restaurants as well as traveling by taxi collectivo (shared taxis) rather than by bus.
CUCs can’t be converted back into USD once in the United States, so do this beforehand. I planned to convert my leftover CUCs back to Euros while in Cuba, and then convert the Euros to USD once back in America. However, I was actually able to convert my CUCs to USD without the standard 10% penalty fee at my American Airlines ticket counter when checking in for my flight. I’m not sure if this works all the time, or for every airline, so you might want to check in advance or only use it as a last resort.
Keep in mind that you won’t be able to convert almost any foreign coins outside of the country. So whether it’s CUCs or Euros — those coins will have to be saved for your next trip abroad because banks and currency exchange offices generally won’t accept international coins.
Credit Cards & ATMs
U.S. credit card do not work in Cuba, so plan to withdraw all the money you’ll need for you trip beforehand.
Recently, Cuba installed some ATMs that in theory work with some Visa cards. But most U.S. banks are still leery of doing business in Cuba, and it seems that only one bank (Stonegate Bank in Florida) has cards that consistently work in Cuba.
Even if you’re told otherwise about the new Cuban ATMs that take Visa or Mastercard, don’t count on either your U.S. bank-issued credit or debit cards to work while in Cuba. Just bring cash.
I brought twice as many Euros than I needed for Cuba trip, but only exchanged them little by little. I knew if I needed more CUCs, I had plenty of Euros to convert; but if I didn’t need more CUCs, I’d waste less money converting currency back and forth, and could just use the remaining Euros on an upcoming Europe trip.
In reality, traveling to Cuba as an American isn’t nearly as complicated and daunting as you probably think. With the help of this blog post, you’ll have all the information you need to better understand the legal requirements, track down privately-run accommodations, restaurants, and activities, and really enjoy Cuba in a more authentic way than you’d get with a giant tour group or cruise ship.
With stunning architecture, delicious food, colorful and vibrant culture, and outdoor adventures only 90 miles away from America, Cuba really should be on your bucket list!
For more information on traveling in Cuba, check out these posts:
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Have any other questions about how to travel to Cuba as an American? Leave them in the comments below!