How to Travel to Cuba

The best way to get acquainted with Cuba is to go there! The Cuban culture, old cars, old buildings, and beasts of burden throughout the island will make you feel like you’ve traveled back in time. Cuba is a beautiful island filled with interesting history and beautiful people that have been cut off from the modern world since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It is a very safe country with little-no violent crimes committed against tourists.

In 2014, President Barack Obama rolled back regulations to permit US citizens to legally travel directly to Cuba with a special license. In 2018, President Trump modified the regulations to further restrict certain aspects of traveling to Cuba while easing others. Because of this, the internet is littered with all sorts of outdated information that can easily confuse even the most seasoned world traveler. This web page was created to provide you solid/updated information that will help make your first visit to Cuba a memorable one while staying in compliance with applicable laws of both the US and Cuba.

If you travel to Cuba, we highly recommend that your first stop be a conservative Protestant church in Cuba! Most churches in Cuba are open every day of the week and have pastoral houses located either on the church property or nearby. If the church is closed, ask someone where the pastor lives and visit him at his house! They love visitors and will likely offer their assistance on your trip. The local church is your best source for trusted information and assistance. They can provide you an opportunity to experience authentic Cuban culture, as well as provide you a firsthand look at the realities of living in Cuba.

Getting into Cuba

Passport Requirement
Although this goes without saying, in order to travel to Cuba you must have a passport that will be valid for at least 6 months after your return date. A passport is required for all travelers (including children and newborns).

Cruise Line
Although there are many ways to travel to Cuba, traveling by Cruise line is the easiest of all available options. Your cruise operator will take care of all the details for you. Will not have to worry about accommodations, obtaining Visas, luggage issues, long immigration lines, breakfast, or dinner. You will also have the advantage of seeing more than one area if the Cruise has multiple stops in Cuba. The cruise operator will also invest a significant amount of time getting you acquainted with local customs and regulations. Although traveling by Cruise has many advantages, it is by far the most expensive option. In addition, there are a couple of Cuban regulations that only apply to Cruisers that may rub you the wrong way. One of them is the Tour Excursion Requirement. In order for you to leave the boat, you are required to purchase a state-operated “educational” Tour/Excursion which can limit what you do and see while in Cuba as many of the tours can take 4-6 hours long. Once the tour is over, you are free to do whatever you like.

There was a time where Cuban law required you to stay with your tour group until the conclusion of the tour with the threat of incarceration, but that did not go over so well. The Cuban regulations were adjusted to allow you to leave the tour at any time, but you still must purchase it. We recommend purchasing a walking tour (as it is the least costly option), exiting the boat when your tour is called, and then walking away from port to do whatever you like. You may be able to exit the boat sooner by showing up at the muster area, show the crew your excursion ticket, and let them know that you plan to do a “self-guided tour” and would like to leave sooner. If you choose to stay with the tour, keep in mind that the tours are operated and/or influenced by the Cuban government. They will emphasize the positive aspects of Cuba, while strategically avoiding many of the realities of Cuba. Some ports (like Cienfuegos) may have limited tourist transportation available so you may be forced to walk around. Part of the ticketing process will require you to declare a “Travel Category” from a list of 12 US authorized travel categories. We recommend “Support for the Cuban People”. This is explained in more detail in the next section.

Commercial Airline
Traveling by commercial airline will allow you to stay in Cuba for longer periods of time, but you will not have the hand holding offered by Cruises. The good news is that travel to Cuba is now streamlined as the airlines have put in automated processes to deal with both US & Cuban regulations. When you purchase your airline ticket, the airliner will require you to fill out a special online form that is specifically designed for travel to Cuba. Part of the online process will require you to declare a “Travel Category” from a list of 12 US authorized travel categories. We recommend “Support for the Cuban People”. This is explained in more detail in the next section. As part of your airline ticket, you will also be required to purchase a Cuban Health Insurance plan as U.S. Health Insurance is not accepted. You will also be required to purchase a Cuban Tourist Card “Visa”.

Entry Requirements – U.S. OFAC Travel License
One of the most confusing things about traveling to Cuba is the fact that U.S entry requirements to Cuba are distinct from Cuba’s entry requirements. U.S. law still prohibits travel to Cuba for tourist activities. However, they are 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba that falls under a General License issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). If your travel falls into one of these categories, you DO NOT need to apply for an additional license with OFAC as authorized travel categories are covered under this General License. You do however need to declare an authorized travel category with your Airline or Cruise line operator in order to satisfy US law. We recommend “Support for the Cuban People” as it is the most general and applicable for most US travelers. In order words, as long as you declare an authorized category with your airline/cruise line, you do not need to do anything else to satisfy US law. The US government may request a detailed itinerary of your activities up to 5 years after your travel date to verify that you did not go to Cuba strictly for tourism purposes. That being said, we do not think there is a single documented case of “tourism crackdowns”, and the vague categories are believed to be intentionally vague to limit the proliferation of personal enjoyment tourism in Cuba, but not eliminate it.

Entry Requirements – Cuban Tourist Card or “Visa”
The U.S. OFAC Travel license does not mean anything in Cuba. It will only help you satisfy U.S. law. In order to enter Cuba, you are required to purchase a Cuban Tourist Card from an authorized Cuban agency. Wait… what??? Yes, you read right. Cuba does not have a special visa for US travelers that match up with OFAC authorized travel categories. In Cuba, you will be considered a Tourist even if you are travelling to “Support the Cuban People”. This has confused many travelers and may even make you feel a bit dishonest. Don’t worry, the US government is aware of this discrepancy and will not make an issue out of it. We do not recommend obtaining any other type of Cuban Visa (unless you are required to do so) as it will significantly complicate the Cuban Visa process. The Cuban Tourist Card is not technically a Visa even though it says Visa on it. It becomes a Visa once it is stamped by Cuban Immigration officials. However, authorized Cuban agencies perform a preliminary immigration check before issuing Tourist Cards to prevent immigration issues once you arrive in Cuba.
If you are a U.S. citizen that was not born in Cuba and you have not had any prior issues with the Cuban government, you can obtain a Cuban Tourist Card from your Cruise line operator while boarding or from a Cuba Travel Services counter located at the Airline Baggage/Check-in Counter at the airport of the last leg of your flight. Cuba Travel Services is a Cuban government authorized agency that can verify your status with the Cuban government and can sell Cuban Tourist Cards. If you were born in Cuba, the Visa entry process is different. If you have any doubt as to whether you will be granted a Visa, you can alternatively obtain a Cuban Tourist Card prior to your travel date online @ cubavisaservices.com. You can also contact them with any questions you may have.

Cuban Tourist Visa Restrictions
Cuban Tourist Visas allow you to travel throughout the island uninhibited and will grant you rights that Cuban nationals don’t have! However, there are certain restrictions that you must comply with or you may end up in a Cuban Prison, so you must take these restrictions seriously. This is not intended to be a complete list of activities prohibited by the Cuban government, simply ones that a reader of our site would likely run into.

Religious Activities: The Cuban Tourist Visa does not allow you to perform “religious activities” while on the island. The term “religious activities” is specifically defined in Cuba as anything done in the church or with the church such as preaching, evangelizing, fixing or maintenance of a church facility, conducting a seminar or workshop, or directly helping in any type of church outreach. However, you can visit a Cuban church, attend worship services, be recognized and say hello to the congregation from your seat, attend any type of church event, and even visit the house of church members. There is a grey area of what is considered “helping”. For example, you can give an offering, but you cannot help construct a building. You can organize a group trip to educate travelers on conditions in Cuba and attend church services, but you cannot organize a “mission trip” to provide construction labor or help evangelize. Keep in mind that many churches have “moles” present during services that are placed there by the government to monitor church services, so we recommend that you do not “push the envelope”. If you are interested in obtaining a Religious Visa, please visit cubatrips.org or coordinate with a government-approved religious organization that can host you. Religious Visas are subject to approval and must include a detailed itinerary that will be subject to government monitoring.

U.S. Prohibited Activities

U.S. law prohibits you from spending any money that benefits the Cuban Military. A large percentage of Cuban businesses are owned by the Cuban government. This includes many hotels, restaurants, tourist agencies, and stores. A complete list of prohibited entities can be found at https://www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/cuba/cubarestrictedlist/275331.htm.

Although you can study the list of prohibited entities, the easiest way to avoid violating U.S. law is by asking if the business is “Particulares”. Cuba has just recently allowed Cuban nationals to start and operate “private businesses” called “Particulares”. Although the Cuban government will only authorize private businesses that will somehow benefit Cuba by serving a need that is not already adequately facilitated by government entities.“Particulares” are “privately owned” business that U.S. citizens can legally spend money at. Since its inception, many private restaurants, tourist agencies, and even some hotels have proliferated. For accommodation purposes, you can stay at a “Casa Particulares” which is a house that rents private rooms to travelers. They are equivalent to a Bed and Breakfast in the U.S. and they are located throughout Cuba. Although the U.S. has no ability to track where you spend your cash, they may ask you for a detailed itinerary of where you stayed, where you bought things, and how you traveled around. If you plan to stay at a fancy hotel, we suggest that you verify if that hotel is listed in the link above.

The penalty for illegally traveling to Cuba and engaging in prohibited activities is up to $250,000 and up to 10 years in prison, however, we are not aware of any documented enforcement of these laws.

Cuban Prohibited Activities

Cuba is a communist country and you are expected to respect their laws and their leadership. U.S. travelers are not used to not having personal freedoms and as a result are at high risk of doing something that may violate Cuban law. The good news is that a little common sense can go a long way in preventing issues. In addition, Cuba is getting used to U.S. tourists and as a result are turning a blind eye to things that would have landed a person in jail just a few years back. By following a few simple rules, you can easily avoid 99% of issues.

Rule #1 Respect Cuban Authorities and Form of Government
There is no freedom of speech in Cuba. No one, including tourists, is allowed to publicly express their personal opinions on things like politics, leadership, government, & religion. Don’t do it! Leave your opinions at home, but keep in mind that a simple publicly expressed opinion you expressed in the U.S. can result in you being denied entry into Cuba.

If a Cuban authority asks you to do something, respect their authority and respectfully comply, unless they are asking you to do something that violates Cuban law or your deeply, and I mean deeply held convictions. If they are doing something you don’t like, your face can say I don’t like this, but your actions and mouth better comply. Ask yourself, is this worth going to jail for, and will the U.S. embassy help me if I do not comply. If you challenge their authority, you will lose. Even if you are eventually released later in the day because of U.S. Embassy involvement, they can ruin your trip, make you leave early, and even ban you from ever entering the island again. They may even target Cuban nationals you are in contact with long after you are gone. There are laws in Cuba, but there can be very little-no recourse for someone abusing their authority in certain areas. When you are in Cuba, use your eyes and ears… and shut your mouth. You don’t have to fear them, but you must respect them.

Rule #2 Do Not Record Military, Police, or Government Personnel or Infrastructure
Cuba has a long history of paranoia which has worked to keep them in power. Several tourists have been temporarily detained for simply taking photos with a police officer in the background. Police officers in congested tourist areas do not enforce this as much as they are accustomed to having large numbers of tourists violating these laws, however, you will not have such luck outside of tourist areas. Before you take a picture or record some video, scan the surrounding area to make sure there are no military or police officers and make sure that you do not take any pictures of any government looking type of building or object. If something looks both touristy and government related, ask first. Don’t bring any drones as they can be viewed as spy devices.

Rule #3 Lodging with Cuban Nationals
With a Cuban Tourist Visa, you are expected to lodge in a hotel or a Casa Particular. When you stay at a friend’s or even a family member’s house, you are taking business away from them. In order to legally stay in the house of a Cuban national who is a family member or close friend, you must obtain an A2 Cuban Family Visa. If you entered with a Tourist Visa, after 24 hours you can change it to a Family Visa at the nearest Immigration Office.

Paying for Things In Cuba

The first thing you need to keep in mind is that Credit and Debit Cards originating from U.S. banks are not accepted anywhere on the island. You must bring enough cash to cover the entire length of your stay in Cuba. You can certainly get by on $100 per day, but we recommend $150-$200 per day if you want to play it safe. How much cash you burn will depend on where you are staying, what you are eating, what you buy, and how much transportation you need. Cuban nationals manage to live on about $30 per month, but they can’t afford to eat at restaurants. We recommend bringing U.S. cash unless you already have Euros on hand. Do not convert U.S. to Euros as the exchange fee’s will negate any savings.

Learning Cuba’s currency system is a bit complex. Basically, there are 2 types of Cuban Currency, CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) & CUP (Cuban Peso National).

CUC
The CUC is the main currency used in the tourism industry and the currency you will use the most. Ironically, 1 CUC is pegged to the value of 1 U.S. dollar. However, when you want to exchange U.S. dollars for CUC, there is a 3% exchange fee and an additional 10% tax placed on the U.S. dollar. So you will get $0.87 in CUC for every U.S. dollar you exchange if you exchange at an Airport, Cadecas (exchange house), bank, or hotel. If you know a guy, you might be able to exchange for much better rates, but you risk receiving counterfeit bills. Only exchange with trusted individuals. Avoid receiving denominations over $20 as many places may not have the ability to break larger denominations.
Some businesses will gladly accept (and prefer) U.S. dollars and will give you a better exchange rate when you pay in U.S. If you are staying in tourist areas near exchange houses, we recommend that you exchange US dollars as you need them. If you plan to travel outside tourist areas, CUC may be the only way to pay and exchange houses may not be available so exchange before you leave the tourist area.

CUP
The CUP is the main currency used by Cuban Nationals. It is valued at roughly 25 CUP = 1 CUC. It is 25 times less valuable than the CUC. More often than not, when you pay a Cuban national or street vendor in CUC, you will get CUP back in change.

Example Costs
Avg Stay in a Casa Particular: $35-45 CUC
Avg Stay in a Tourist Hotel: $150-300 CUC
Avg Taxi Ride: $1 + $1/km CUC
Avg Meal Non-Tourist Area: $2-3 CUC
Avg Meal Tourist Area: $6-14 CUC

Getting Around in Cuba

Transportation in tourist areas is readily accessible and affordable. When you are in a tourist area, you will have many transportation options like buses, taxis, and horse-driven carriages. Simply wave your hand and they will appear! Transportation is almost non-existent outside the tourist areas. Most Cuban nationals cannot afford a car, so they travel from city to city by booking an intercity bus several months in advance or by hitchhiking. If you plan to travel outside tourist areas, plan for delays, breakdowns, and maybe even some hitchhiking! Hitchhiking is considered to be a normal method of travel in Cuba, but competition is high! Limit the number of cities you visit in a single trip as you will likely run into some sort of problem that will prevent you from completing your planned itinerary. If you know someone in Cuba that has a car, reach out to them!

Taxis
If you plan to stay in a tourist area, you can “rent” a taxi driver for the day for about $85. We recommend that you ask the local church for a trusted taxi driver. Otherwise, we recommend that you pay something small up front and pay the rest at the end of the day or “pay as you go”. Paying everything up front will likely prompt a disappearing act.

Rental Cars
Rental cars are available in Cuba, but you must book them several months in advance. Your car will likely be a cheap import with a manual transmission. Booking a car in advance does not guarantee a car will be available when you arrive as breakdowns can impact availability. A U.S. citizen can rent from Rex, Havanautos, Via, and Cubacar. Keep in mind that road signage is severely limited, and there is NO mobile internet access in Cuba. You will likely have to rely on asking for directions. Google Maps on your cell phone has the ability to locally cache maps in Cuba so that it works without internet access, but you must set this up and test it the week before you depart. Set your phone to airplane mode and make sure that you can still see the map and roads in Cuba. Make sure the cache does not expire during your trip. There are only a few roads in Cuba so if you see a few main roads and a bunch of streets in cities you are good. We would also recommend that you carry a paper map of Cuba as a backup.

Although you can rent a car, we do not recommend it. Cuba’s roads are poorly maintained and full of many potholes and obstacles that can cause a breakdown. It is also very challenging as pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, horse driven carriages, and farm animals can be very unpredictable and will often cut you off and be in extremely close proximity to your vehicle while moving. If you feel unsafe driving within inches of moving obstacles, driving in Cuba is not for you.

The other thing you need to consider is that the penalties for hitting pedestrians or causing bodily harm are extremely serious. If you get into an accident that does not involve injuries, the rental car company’s insurance will take care of everything. However, if you get into an accident that involves injuries or even death, the driver will likely be detained in a Cuban prison until the investigation is complete as part of standard procedure, even if the accident was clearly not your fault. U.S. citizens are often found at fault for accidents they are involved in. If the accident was determined to be your fault, you may be detained in a Cuban prison until the person heals, and may be financially responsible for all the damages caused. You will not be allowed to leave the island until it is settled. Although thousands of U.S. citizens rent cars without issues every year, the risk is high, and it may not be worth it.

For more detailed information visit:
https://www.viahero.com/travel-to-cuba/transportation-in-cuba
https://www.viahero.com/travel-to-cuba/driving-in-cuba-tips-and-experiences-from-a-traveler

How to Avoid Getting Scammed in Cuba

Cuban’s are beautiful people that will give you the best that they have, but the economic situation may encourage some individuals to engage in certain types of scams. Many tourist services are plagued with scamming that does not occur anywhere else on the island. When in a tourist area, you must remain diligent to avoid getting scammed.

Exchange Scamming
The CUC bills are confusingly similar to the CUP bills. This is what makes Cuban’s currency system complicated and prone to scamming. If you don’t pay attention, someone can easily slip in a few CUP bills masking as CUC bills. Later when you exchange these bills you only get 4% of the value you thought you had. Always make sure that you receive CUC bills back. If you see a CUP in there, immediately place it back on the table in plain view and start calculating or ask for change in CUC. Counterfeit bills are also a problem in Cuba. When someone receives one, they will try to make it your problem by giving them to unsuspecting tourists. Avoid receiving CUC denominations over $20 as change, and study the look and feel of good bills.

Service “Miscommunications”
Some Cuban service providers take advantage of language barriers to bait you into thinking you got a great deal only to switch it out with another deal after they perform the service. For example, you ask a taxi driver “how much to drive us to our hotel” and he answers $5 CUC. After he drives you to your destination, he charges you $20 and when you say I thought it was $5, they say no that’s $5 per person. They also might say $1 per km, but few taxies have meters, so they will try to slip in several km’s. Always negotiate a fixed total rate for the entire trip.

You must be diligent in trying to identify potential “miscommunications”. Clarifying pricing by saying things like, “is that the total for everyone?”, “is there anything else that is not included?”, etc.

Pickpockets
Although violent crimes are virtually non-existent, many tourist areas are plagued with pickpockets. They are incredibly good at it and you will often not realize you’ve been robbed until you need what they stole. Do not keep anything important in loose-fitting pockets. Use zipped pockets when possible and never store all your cash in one place.  Spread your cash around several people, bags, wallets, purses, zipped pockets, etc. to limit losses. Never publicly display large amounts of cash. We recommend concealed clip wallets, money belts, and other anti-theft accessories. Always have a continuity plan. ie: if someone steals my wallet, how will I get back. Keep an alternate form of ID in a separate place in case one gets lost/stolen. ie: Carry your booklet passport with visa and leave a 2nd card passport in your room safe.

What to do if you get in Trouble in Cuba

If you get arrested while in Cuba, ask the authorities to notify a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy immediately. If you have the opportunity, call the U.S. Embassy directly at +53 7 8394100 the moment you suspect that you may be in trouble. We highly recommend that you program this number on your cell phone. The U.S. Embassy is currently closed to Cuban Nationals seeking U.S. Immigration Visas, however, it remains open for U.S. Citizens requiring embassy services.

Friends and/or family should be notified of your travel plans and should be given instructions on what to do in the event that you do not return on your planned return date. For more information visit:

https://cu.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/
https://cu.usembassy.gov/please-note-that-u-s-embassy-havana-remains-open/

Other Resources

https://authentictraveling.com/travels/cuba/how-to-travel-to-cuba-2017-guide-for-americans/