Everything You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba as an American Citizen

In Blog, Caribbean, Cuba, Travel Planning, Travel Tips by Kay0 Comments

Since returning from my most recent trip, I’ve gotten a ton of questions about traveling to Cuba as an American citizen. This post details me experience and what you can expect if you decide to travel there yourself.

For decades, the United States had a strained relationship with Cuba that closed off its borders to American citizens. During that time, only a very select handful of people were able to experience Cuba’s color and beauty. However, in recent months, the US government has eased restrictions on traveling to Cuba due to an improving relationship. Because of this, many airline carriers from the US are beginning to have flight routes directly from many US cities. When I found a cheap flight deal to go to Cuba from Orlando, I jumped on it to get a glimpse of this place that was hidden from the American eye for so long.

Now, you too can travel to Cuba! Here are the answers to your most pressing questions:

Is traveling to Cuba legal?

Last year, the government eased restrictions on travel to Cuba for Americans. Historically, travelers to Cuba from the US needed to apply for a license to enter the country. Things have now changed.

It is technically illegal to visit Cuba for pure tourism purposes. However, you can travel to Cuba legally if you are going for a specific intention. Under this new policy, you can get permission to visit Cuba if you fit into one of the following twelve categories, and you don’t need to obtain a visa ahead of time (quoted from the US Embassy web page):

“1. Family visits

2. Official business for the US government, foreign governments and intergovernmental organizations

3. Journalistic activity

4. Professional research and/or 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

11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials

12. Certain authorized export transactions”

If you meet any of these categories, you are eligible for entry into Cuba.

What if I don’t believe I fit into one of the categories?

Because the categories don’t require a license any more, there is a bit more leeway on how they are interpreted. For many Americans, the ‘people to people/educational activities’ category seems to work pretty well, as you’ll often be talking to locals and learning from them. Although I traveled as a journalist, my friends who accompanied me traveled as ‘people to people/educational activities’ visitors and had no problems. We justified that by staying in local homes every night and interacting substantially with locals along the way. None of the four of us received additional screening or questioning during the entire visa process.

How can I get to Cuba?

Following the eased restrictions on travel to Cuba, more and more airlines are offering direct flights from cities all over the United States. The ‘hotspot’ for travel directly to Cuba from the US is Florida – Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando. From Florida, you can find regular flight schedules to Cuba basically every day of the week. Other cities, such as Dallas, Atlanta and Houston, also have flights, but their schedules are somewhat irregular.

Some popular airlines that fly to Cuba from the US are Spirit Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, United, Delta, and American. I flew JetBlue from Orlando to Havana and had a very seamless experience. Depending on what city you want to fly from, your airline options may be limited.

To buy flights, just purchase them like you would any other international flight. Have your passport handy, know which of the twelve visa waiver exceptions you are going to claim, and be sure to read all of the fine print your airline provides regarding your flight to Cuba. You must purchase Cuban health insurance (~$25 for 30 days) if you enter the country, but many times it is included in the price of your flight. By thoroughly reading the fine print when you purchase your ticket, you’ll know whether you’re covered or not.

How can I get a Cuban visa?

When you arrive at the airport for your flight, you will go to the check in kiosk and check in like any normal flight. At this point, you will pay a fee for your visa to enter Cuba. On JetBlue, mine was $50, but this fee could vary depending on the airline. This fee is paid in the US while checking in for your flight, and is payable by cash, debit, or credit.

After paying the fee, the airline representative will then give you a perforated sheet of paper with your visa(s) on it; the immigration officials in Cuba will take one side of it when you arrive in the country, and the other side when you leave. Do not lose these slips of paper. I’m not sure what would happen if you lost it, but I don’t think it’s worth risking it.

What’s the money situation?

Cuba operates on two currencies, the CUP, or peso, and the CUC, or peso convertible. When you exchange money in Cuba, you’ll receive CUC in return. Strangely, the US dollar doesn’t hold much value in Cuba, so if you want to get the most ‘bang for your buck,’ I recommend exchanging your US dollars to Canadian dollars before leaving home, and exchanging those Canadian dollars for CUC. While I was there, the US dollar traded for $1 USD to .96 CUC, while the Canadian dollar was $1 CAD to 1.35 CUC, an almost 50% increase. In most areas of the world, Canadian dollars are worth less than US dollars, but not in Cuba!

Additionally, you cannot use American credit or debit cards in Cuba. For the most part, credit cards aren’t accepted as forms of payment at all. Therefore, you must bring all the cash you’ll need for your trip plus some with you before you depart the United States. If you don’t do this, or you underestimate how much cash you need, you could find yourself unable to pay for things. I always recommend bringing all the cash you think you need, plus 50% in case of emergencies. Better to play it safe!

Where should I stay in Cuba?

If you’re claiming the ‘people to people’ visa exemption, there’s no better way to immerse yourself in the local culture than by staying with a family in their home. This type of accommodation, similar to a bed & breakfast stay, is called a casa familiar. There are a few ways to book your casa – you can do it online, you can call once you arrive in Cuba, or you can simply walk up to a home that says ‘hospedaje’ or ‘room for rent’ and inquire within.

For my trip, I booked a casa familiar on Airbnb, which has excellent and cheap options for accommodation in Cuba that you can reserve in advance. We booked rooms online for $25-40 per night, and didn’t have to worry about the uncertainty or hassle of not having a place to stay. However, if you are concerned about your budget, you can also choose the option of calling or emailing a casa familiar in advance and paying in cash, which can save you anywhere from 5-10 CUC per night. The casas that do not operate on Airbnb are largely spread by word of mouth, so you can ask your prior hosts, your taxi drivers, or restaurant waiters if they have recommendations.

How Can I Get Around In Cuba?

Once you arrive in Cuba, there are a few ways to get from city to city. They range in prices and convenience, so choose wisely based on your preferred travel style and budget.

Bus

There are both public and private buses that run from city to city, and these are the cheapest way to travel around the island. Viazul is the most popular bus service that is suited for intercity travel for tourists. For example, from Havana to Viñales, there are two buses per day – one in the morning and one in the early afternoon.

As a warning, the buses can be quite crowded, and they often get reserved a few days in advance. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to plan in advance, it may be difficult to secure a seat on the Viazul buses in popular tourist areas like Varadero and Viñales. An example fare on Viazul is 12 CUC per person from Havana to Viñales.

Colectivo

If you’ve arrived at the Viazul bus station only to realize your bus is full or you’ve arrived too late, don’t fret! You can take a colectivo instead. The colectivos are shared van or taxi services that will bring you virtually anywhere the buses do. These are convenient and cheap ways to get from place to place, the only caveat is that you often have to wait for the vehicle to get filled with people before you depart.

When we arrived in Havana, we went directly to the Viazul bus station to catch a bus to Viñales, but learned quickly that the next bus didn’t leave until the afternoon. Instead of waiting four hours for the afternoon bus, we asked around outside the station for a driver going to Viñales. One driver offered to drive us the 3 hours to Viñales for 15 CUC per person, just a little bit more expensive than the bus. We happily agreed and off we went.

Taxi

If comfort or convenience is what you’re after, then taking a taxi is your best bet. Taxis will take you anywhere you want to go, for a pretty penny. However, if you’re traveling in a group, taxis can be super reasonable given how much energy and time they save you. An example fare from our ride back from Viñales to Havana was 20 CUC per person, or 80 CUC total, for the 3 hour ride in an air conditioned vehicle. Definitely the most expensive option, but it felt the safest and was the easiest to organize on our own schedule.

Rental Car

There’s also an option to rent a car in Cuba. For this, it’s wise to have a good working knowledge of manual shift, as automatic car rentals are much more expensive. Renting a car in Cuba can easily run $70+ USD per day plus the cost of gasoline, and the drivers in Cuba can be a little bit crazy sometimes. I wouldn’t recommend this option unless you a) are really good at driving manual and have no problem adapting to the Cuban road rules, b) have a small group you can split the cost of the car with, and c) really hate taking the bus and taxis. Taxi hire for a whole day isn’t that much more expensive and you’ll have a driver doing all the work!

Is There Phone or Internet in Cuba?

In Cuba, there is a cell service provider on the island and people use their phones for texting and calling all the time, but as I didn’t use my phone while I was there, I’m not sure if there is cellular data available.

For Internet, there are several publicly-owned ETESCA Wi-Fi hotspots scattered throughout each town or city. Many of the large, swanky hotels offer Wi-Fi as well. It’s pretty inconvenient to find these hotspots, but the typical telltale sign you’ve found one is that there are half a dozen people huddled on a street corner staring into their glowing phone screens.

As a tourist, you can use these Wi-Fi hotspots, but you must buy ETESCA scratch-off cards at a local kiosk or hotel before being able to connect. There is a fee of ~$2-6 per hour associated with these cards, depending on where you buy them. Or, if you decide to take the same route I did, you can turn off your devices during your trip and enjoy the beauty of Cuba without distractions!

Is traveling in Cuba safe?

As with any foreign country, it is critical to be alert and aware of your surroundings at all times. The average Cuban monthly salary is ~$25, so there is a chance some locals are sensitive to flashy jewelry, electronics, or other signs of wealth. Be careful of pickpockets and scams. In my time there, I never felt particularly unsafe (except for a few crazy drivers!), despite interacting with locals quite a bit.

As a woman, there’s a little bit of sexism in the way some of the men speak. It was mostly taxi drivers and farmers in my case, but I figured it was worth mentioning in case you are sensitive to sexist remarks. Although there were a few instances of cat-calling and aggressive behavior, the vast majority of men were totally normal towards me and I never felt unsafe in any of my interactions with them.

Can I bring back cigars/rum/etc.?

Many people who visit Cuba want to bring back the world-famous cigars or a bottle of Havana Club for their friends. You’re in luck! You can legally bring back up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars or alcohol with no penalty. If you’re feeling worried about it, keep your receipts documenting how much you spent on souvenirs. However, I brought back a few items myself, including cigars, and did not get questioned by anyone and was not required to provide receipts.

Did You Have Any Trouble Returning to the US?

Returning to the US was quick and easy for me. At Cuban immigration, you’ll have to turn in the other half of that visa slip I mentioned earlier. You’ll also need to exchange your CUC back to dollars at the airport (or spend it on more souvenirs).

When I landed, I had Global Entry and reentered the country with no additional issues or screenings. At customs, you can declare any goods that you have brought back with you and as long as they are under $400, you won’t have any problems. I didn’t get treated any differently in immigration coming back from Cuba than I would have coming back from any other country.

Should I Travel to Cuba?

Absolutely, yes! It was a fairly easy and straightforward process to get to and from Cuba, and I’d go back in a heartbeat given how simple it was. The country itself is such a vibrant and colorful place, a spectacle for the eyes, with loads of friendly and warm people. Now that it’s so easy for Americans to get there, what better time than now to check it out?

Other great resources

Here are a couple more wonderful posts on visiting Cuba that I recommend perusing if you’d like to learn more:

More questions about traveling to Cuba? I’m happy to answer them on Facebook or in the comments below!

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