Everything U.S. Citizens Need to Know About Travel to Cuba

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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:

  • Valid U.S. Passport
  • Cuban Visa
  • Supplemental Medical Insurance
  • Sate-Department Sanctioned Reason for Travel

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.

Cuban Visa

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).

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.

  1. Family visits to Cuban nationals
  2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research and professional meetings
  5. Educational activities
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian projects
  10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  12. 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 has announced that new regulations will be coming out shortly removing that authority.  Planning an individual People to People trip is very risky right now unless you have proof of at least one reservation prior to his June 16, 2017 announcement.  (If you do have proof, you are grandfathered into the President Obama policy; if you do not have proof, you are subject to the new rules as of the day they are published.)  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.

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.

Cuba - Vinales 6

Other Important Things to Know Before You Go

Money

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.

Lodging

On June 16, 2017, President Trump announced that the U.S. government will be coming out with restrictions on U.S. citizens having direct transactions with entities related to the Cuban military, intelligence, or security services.  At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a big deal.  However, many of the major industries in Cuba have some relationship with the military either directly or indirectly.  GAESA, a business conglomerate owned by the Revolutionary Armed Forces, has ties to many of the country’s hotels (even the Sheraton).  While the official list of restrictions has not yet come out, most analysts are anticipating that many of the country’s hotels will become off-limits as a result.  It can be difficult trying to determine what hotels are and aren’t affiliated with the organization unless you do some research of your own.

So, as a U.S. Citizen, what are your other options?  You can a) take your chances that the laws will not affect whatever hotel you choose and book whatever you like, b) do your research and ensure your hotel has no ties to GAESA just to be safe, or c) try a Cuban homestay (my personal choice).  Homestays, also knowns as Casa Particulares, are the easiest solution.  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:  There has been some talk about there potentially being an issue with the AirBNB payment system depending upon how the new U.S. laws are written.  The payment processing system AirBNB uses for Cuba has some ties to GAESA.  We will just have to wait and see how that issue is addressed if it becomes one.  Additionally, what is and isn’t considered a “direct transaction” has not yet been defined.  If you book with a tour company and your hotel lodging is included, it may not be considered a direct transaction depending upon how the final law is worded.  Stay tuned!

Transportation & Guide Services

Again, the new laws may make this more complicated.  Rental car agencies are owned by the Cuban government.  However, I don’t recommend driving in Cuba anyway.  The roads are a mess, and the city street signage can be quite confusing.  I also strongly 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 strongly 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.

In the near future, it is anticipated that U.S. citizens will be restricted from hiring Cuban government owned guide services, as well.  Government-owned operations that run popular excursions/day-trips (like EcoTur), will become off-limits.  You will most likely need to hire a private company or driver to take you on these ventures (like Wijincuba or one of the other private companies linked above).  Just confirm that any companies you hire are ‘private’ as this can sometimes be very complicated!  It is anticipated that the U.S. government will release a comprehensive list of restricted entities to help avoid confusion.

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.

Safety Questions

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.

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  1. […] as possible, those clarifications have all been updated in the original post, which you can find here (or by simply clicking on the original post link elsewhere on my web page).  I hope you enjoy […]

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