How to get into Cuba legally and some travel tips for American visitors
Note: this article was published in 2018, laws may have changed since then! I’ve just returned from a truly amazing and rewarding 7 day trip to Cuba and loads of people are asking me what the latest restrictions are for Americans traveling there – can U.S. citizens still travel to Cuba legally? The status of Cuba travel for Americans is certainly a confusing topic lately but yes, even in the Trumpian era, it is still possible and legal for Americans to visit there. I’m living proof that you can do it, with minimal effort and paperwork even. To help answer your questions about getting into Cuba legally, I’ve decided to write this blog post, addressing the current situation for Americans wishing to visit there and providing some tips for would-be travelers.
To get into Cuba as an American, you’ll need a visa, a relatively easy thing to obtain. There are currently about a dozen categories of travel that permit U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba without violating travel restrictions that have been in effect since 1962: family visits, professional reasons, journalism, religious or cultural programs, humanitarian projects and finally “support for the Cuban people”. This final category is the one that I used and the one that most Americans traveling there independently will want to use when planning their visit. There used to be a “People to people exchange” category, but that no longer exists so you’ll want to claim “Support for the Cuban people”. The reason that “Support for the Cuban people” exists is because in the logic of the current US government policy makers, the hope is that by supporting the Cuban people directly, economically, free market values will be promoted and this will undermine the communist regime. With that premise directing current US policy, any time you are asked about your reasons for traveling to Cuba either verbally or in writing, you should always respond “support for the Cuban people” – this is your magic ticket to entry and doesn’t require any additional proof of intent or action on your part.
Getting a Cuban visa
U.S citizens must have a visa to get into Cuba, no exceptions. Getting the visa is easy however. Generally you can buy the visa at the departure gate when you leave your U.S. destination for Cuba. Several U.S airlines fly directly to Havana from the US and will sell you the visa at the gate. Delta has direct flights from Atlanta to Havana and I was able to buy my visa online through the Delta site when I booked my tickets. The cost was $50 and the visa was waiting for me at the gate in Atlanta (I started my trip in Los Angeles). I would recommend flying Delta because the process is super easy to do online and it only cost me $50 for the visa fee. My travel partner took a direct flight on American Airlines from Miami to Havana had to pay $100 at the gate in Miami and she couldn’t buy it online when she booked her flight. Other airlines may charge more or less or offer online visas but I only have experience with Delta and American. Either way, when filling out the application for the visa, you’ll have to pick from one of the 12 travel categories and will be presented with some intimidating verbage about how travel to Cuba is restricted and you must fall into one of the travel categories or face grave consequences! Don’t worry, just choose “support for the Cuban people” on all your travel docs and you’ll be fine.
Arriving at the airport in Cuba
Once you’ve gotten your visa (you can only get it before entering Cuba), you simply present it along your passport when you arrive at the airport. I read on a few sites that American travelers are required to buy Cuban health insurance and I bought a $25 travel insurance policy along with my Delta ticket just in case. I also brought my Kaiser health insurance card as a secondary backup in case I got hassled about it. Nonetheless, nobody at the airport ever asked me or my travel partner about health insurance and I was never required to show any proof of health insurance when I arrived. I would still recommend getting travel insurance though just in case, especially considering how cheap it is and how handy it could be if something does come up while you are there.
Getting through customs in Cuba is no more difficult than in any other country. Normal restrictions apply against firearms, explosives, drugs, etc. and your baggage will be x-rayed upon arrival to make sure you aren’t bringing in any forbidden items (don’t even think about smuggling prohibited stuff, Cuban prisons are no fun!). Still, getting through customs and immigration was easy and the Cuban officials didn’t ask me any questions or give me any problems upon entry. The Havana airport itself is a bit outdated but I got through customs and immigration quickly.
Taxi service to central Havana is available outside the airport for approx $25-30 and is your only option as there is no public transportation to or from the airport.
Cuba uses 2 currencies, one for its own citizens (Cuban peso, or moneda naciónal) and another for tourists (peso convertible or CUC). You’ll need to get CUCs at the airport to pay for your taxi and the exchange rate is officially 1:1 for the US dollar but you end up getting about .87 CUCs per dollar due to government fees. CUCs are widely accepted and all foreigners are required to use that currency for all monetary transactions. Note that the Cuban peso trades at about 25 pesos per CUC, so don’t mix up the 2 curencies or assume that they have the same value, they don’t!
ATMs are few and far between in Cuba and I couldn’t get any of them to accept my US debit card (even though my bank told me they should work there) so it’s advisable to bring enough cash with you to last for your trip. A budget of $100 – $150 per person, per day including housing can get you by but if you’re on a real budget and live more like the locals you can probably get by with as little as $50 per day. I’m a budget minded traveler and spent about $650 in seven days, not including housing costs (housing was only about $150 more, shared between 2 people). This included eating out all the time, taxi colectivos and lots of piña coladas and other cocktails.
Where to stay in Cuba
Since most hotels in Cuba are government owned, it’s not advisable for Americans to stay in hotels because you aren’t legally supposed to do business with the Cuban government. Luckily, Airbnb is really big in Cuba and it’s the best way to book a place to stay, plus you’ll be supporting the Cuban people directly! You’ll find lots of options all over Cuba on Airbnb’s site and prices are remarkably low compared to other world markets. We booked 4 different places during our stay and all of them were great and ranged in price from $25/night for a nice private room to $68/night for our own, massive, 2bd flat in central Havana. While there are lots of private housing options available in many cities outside of Airbnb (casas particulares), booking in advance through Airbnb is a good idea because you can register and pay for it in advance and don’t have to carry extra cash with you.
Internet access is slow and painful in Cuba, really painful. Even though there are an increasing number of Wifi hotspots in many cities and lots of hotels and casa particulares offer wifi, you’ll still need to buy access cards from ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A.) in order to actually get online. These cards are usually available in 1 hour increments and cost anywhere from 1 $CUC to 5 $CUCs. You can get them from an ETECSA kiosk if you can find them, from your casa host sometimes, or often on the black market (if you are in a park and someone is whispering “tarjeta” they are trying to sell you one). They have a user name and password which you scratch off with a coin. You must enter the user and password from the card into your web broswer, even if the place you are staying has wifi. Even though these cards sometimes work the first time you try, albeit with very slow connection times, most subsequent times you try to connect will not be successful and you’ll find yourself spending lots of time pulling your hair out trying to get your browser to connect. Usually you will have trouble accessing the login page where you enter the code, it’s a horribly inefficient system, especially on a mobile device. Here’s a tip though: if you can’t find the login page on your browser, try typing 188.8.131.52 into the browser address. Also note that if you don’t log out when you are done, your time balance with continue to be used up so I always turned my wifi off after I was done to make sure I wasn’t connected anymore.
Before we left Cuba, our host told us that the government had promised to offer internet through mobile data in the near future but I wouldn’t hold my breath on it. Don’t go to Cuba if you need to be online regularly and reliably while you are there, it’s just not reliable enough yet.
Leaving Cuba and returning back to the U.S
Getting out of Cuba wasn’t any different than leaving other airports in other countries. No questions were asked by airport officials and everything went smoothly. I was actually hoping they would stamp my passport on the way out as it would have been cool to have a Cuban stamp in my passport but I didn’t get one either coming in or going out.
You are allowed to bring up to $100 in cigars and alcohol combined. That’s not a lot but at least you can bring back a few cigars and a bottle of rum or two. I bought some cigars at the airport with my last $20 worth of CUCs (cheapest cigars at the airport are about $5 each, more expensive than outside the airport but still cheaper than in the US) so I bought a few. I didn’t have any space in my baggage for rum, but if you want to bring some home, it’s much cheaper to get outside the airport and put it in your check-in baggage.
I was a bit nervous about coming back to the US and getting through customs, imagining all sorts of questions, interrogations and searchings of my bags. Much to my surprise though, getting back in was a piece of cake. The customs officer asked me where I had been, took my documents, and said welcome back! No other questions and they didn’t ask about cigars, search my bags or anything else!
Please note the date of this article’s publishing (June 2018) and realize that restrictions may change at any time, so always make sure to check the U.S. Embassy in Cuba website for the latest information on travel restrictions to Cuba.
Last modified: March 8, 2020