“I thought that we were banned from visiting Cuba.” No, we are not banned from visiting Cuba. While Americans face tighter travel restrictions, we are not banned from Cuba. The question that seems to repeatedly come up on the travel groups that I am a member of on Facebook is “can I still travel to Cuba?” The answer to that question is a resounding yes! Yes, you can still travel to Cuba! I know it may seem a bit confusing so let me break it down for you.
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What changed? Since the 1960s the United States has imposed a trade embargo on Cuba. While former President Obama was in office he attempted to ease some of the restrictions and mend the frosty relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Now that a new administration is in office, the restrictions are being put back into place. In May of 2019 the State Department announced, “going forward, the United States will prohibit US travelers from going to Cuba under the previous ‘group people-to-people educational’ travel authorization. In addition, the United States will no longer permit visits to Cuba via passenger and recreational vessels, including cruise ships and yachts, and private and corporate aircraft.”
How does this change impact me? To put it simply, all cruises and non-commercial aircraft and vessels will not be allowed entry into Cuba. You can still fly into Cuba on a commercial airline as of the date of this post. I’ll repeat that. You can still fly into Cuba on airlines like Southwest and JetBlue directly from the United States of America. There are 12 categories of authorized travel on the visa application. The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions.
What do I put as my reason for visiting? Out of the 12 categories most people check off support for the Cuban people. This is the most broad category and simply means that you will support local businesses such as casa particulares, paladares, and tours offered by local tour guides. If you were to stay in a government run hotel you would be in violation of your visa. You can find a list of the government run businesses that you should avoid on the State Department’s website (last updated April 2019).
What do I need in order to go? All you need to fly to Cuba is a valid passport with at least 2 blank pages, a travel visa, and your airline ticket.
Is it true that I can’t use American money or credit cards in Cuba?
Yes and no. The Government of Cuba charges a 10 percent fee for all U.S. dollar cash conversions. You will definitely not be able to use ATMs or credit cards in Cuba so bring a lot of cash. Bring what you think you will need and then an extra hundred or two just to be safe. Prices in Cuba are reasonable, but not cheap. As for using cash in Cuba, some larger vendors, Airbnb hosts, and taxi drivers will accept the US. dollar. I’ve even heard that banks in Cuba can change your money, but you will have to stand in very long lines and you will be charged the 10 percent government fee. I strongly recommend that you change your money over to Euros before you arrive in Cuba. There are 3 different ways you can do this.
The best way in my opinion is to request it from your bank. The caveat is that you must put in the request well in advance. My bank told me that it needed between 10 and 14 days advance notice. The second and third options are what I did. You can exchange money at one of the airport exchange booths but you will pay high fees to do so. An alternative is to use cambios or local exchanges in your city to change over money as well. Finally, you can use the ATMs at the airport and request the money in Euros. I would say that this is probably the easiest way to get Euros. Once you arrive in Cuba you can get money from the exchange window at the airport which is what I had to do in order to catch a taxi, or you can exchange it at a hotel in Havana. I suggest just changing as much as you think you will need at one time so you aren’t constantly worried about having enough money every day.
How do I get what I need?
In order to travel to Cuba you definitely need to have a passport. I’ve explained how to get one here. Next, you will need to request a travel visa. I flew on Southwest Airlines and there was a section during the ticket purchasing process when I had the option to request and pay for a travel visa using Cuba Travel Services. It looks a bit sketchy but it is legit. Depending on your airline the average cost for a travel visa can range anywhere from $50-75, but I have heard of people who paid more and less. You can read more about getting your visa here. I was expecting to receive the visa when I checked in for the first leg of my flight, however I did not get the visa until I checked in for the second leg of my flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Havana. I filled it out in front of the airline agents and it was stamped as valid. You cannot make any mistakes or you will need to buy a new visa so take your time and leave enough time between your flights to complete your paperwork correctly. You can always relax in an airport lounge if necessary. Finally, you will need medical insurance but it will be included in the cost of your airline ticket so it is one less thing you will need to worry about.
I heard that I can’t stay in a hotel or resort in Cuba.
You can stay in hotels, however there are certain hotels that are restricted because they are government owned or affiliated. You can find an updated list on the US State Department’s website if you simply must stay in a hotel. Just be aware that hotels in Havana are not always up to the typical multi-star standards that some Americans are used to. Cuba is still a struggling country with a lot of aging infrastructure due to the ongoing embargo. There are some very fancy hotels in Havana if you are willing to pay for them and Cuba is also currently undergoing a revitalization of sorts where foreign entities are coming in to build new hotels. Check Booking.com to see if you can find a suitable hotel. Tripadvisor is another great resource. Most Americans stay in an Airbnb or casa particular in order to meet the visa requirement of support for the Cuban people because the money goes directly to a Cuban family. It is also a great way to get immersed in the culture and live like the locals. Most casa particulares offer a breakfast of bread, fruit and eggs for $5 CUC. It includes delicious Cuban coffee (pick up some at the duty free shop to bring back) and fresh squeezed juice. Also remember to tip the staff daily. Whatever you decide to do remember that you need to keep all of your receipts for your daily activities transactions for at least 5 years.
My final word of advice is to always register with the US State Department before traveling outside of the country. There have been instances where natural disasters or civil unrest have stranded Americans in other countries and you never know when it is going to happen. My motto is better safe than stranded.
I will be sharing more of Cuban adventures in upcoming posts so be sure to like, comment, and share! If you have been to Cuba what advice would you add? Share it in the comments section.