Here’s how you can travel to Cuba as an American.
UPDATE: As of August 2016, there are now regular flights to Cuba from the United States from certain airlines/cities.
Back in 1960 the United States imposed a severe trade embargo against Cuba. The Blockade was created after Cuba nationalized American owned oil refineries without compensation.
As part of this embargo, travel to Cuba by Americans has been restricted for over half a century. Or more specifically, it’s technically illegal for U.S. citizens to have transactions (spend money or receive gifts) in Cuba under most circumstances.
Basically this regulation has prevented most Americans from considering Cuba as a travel destination. Due to economic sanctions, air travel to Cuba from the United States was almost impossible. American credit & debit cards don’t work in Cuba either.
However things are finally beginning to change.
Can Americans Travel To Cuba?
Even though travel to Cuba for Americans is restricted, that doesn’t make it impossible to visit. For many years some intrepid Americans were traveling to Cuba anyway. Initially there were three ways to accomplish this.
You could register for a special license with the US Government if the reason for your travel fit a certain category. These include family visits, professional reasons, journalism, religious or cultural programs, and humanitarian projects.
People To People Tours
Organized tours that involve some sort of educational experience with local Cuban people. It’s never been defined officially, but basically your trip can’t just involve sitting on the beach. Travelers would talk with a school, volunteer for a community project, or collaborate with artists. A kind of legal loophole that tour companies use to sell tours in Cuba.
Foreign Gateway Cities
The other option was to travel to Cuba “illegally” through a foreign gateway city. This means flying yourself to Canada or Mexico first, then traveling to Cuba on your own from one of those countries. Because for the rest of the world, Cuba has been a popular travel destination for many years.
It’s only us Americans who haven’t been able to visit Cuba!
As of January 16th, 2015 Americans no longer need to apply for specific licenses if they fit one of the 12 special categories.
What does this mean? It simplifies the process for Americans that meet those special requirements to visit Cuba. But it also creates a grey-area.
If you no longer have to pre-apply for a license, can you say your trip is for journalism when it’s really not? Will anyone even check to make sure you actually match one of the 12 categories?
If you don’t fit one of the categories, will anyone enforce the rules when you return to the United States? From my experience & listening to other travelers, the answer is no.
While it’s still technically illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba for tourism only, it seems in practice, no one really enforces these travel restrictions anymore.
How To Travel To Cuba
As of August 2016, the US government is allowing some American companies to resume flights to Cuba.
Airlines that are flying to Cuba from the United States now include American, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, United, Spirit, Alaska and Delta.
For flights leaving from the Untied States, the visa process can be different depending on the airline you’re flying with. Here’s more information about obtaining a Cuban visa in the United States, depending on who you’re flying with:
Southwest: $50 – Purchase online & delivered at the gate
JetBlue: $50 – Purchase at gate
Delta: $50 – Purchase at gate or through mail
United: $75 – Purchase at gate
American: $85 – Purchase online & sent via regular mail
Frontier: $110 – Purchase online & sent via regular mail
Some reports suggest that it’s not the same everywhere though.
For these reasons, I recommend calling your airline beforehand to verify.
Check prices for cheap flights to Cuba here.
My $20 Cuban Visa
Cuban Immigration Process
The Cuban immigration process was super simple. I told the officer in Havana that I was traveling to Cuba for tourism, and he offered to stamp my visa card instead of my passport. This has been standard operating procedure for years.
Cuba wants American tourism, and they offer to stamp your visa rather than your passport so you don’t get in trouble with the US government.
This way, when you return to the United States, it just looks like you traveled to Mexico. Or Canada. There’s no passport record of your travel to Cuba.
However I asked him to stamp my passport directly. I was curious what would happen when I returned to the United States. Would anyone ask me about it? Would I get fined or arrested?
Nothing happened. When I returned to the United States, immigration didn’t even ask me what countries I’d been to, and they didn’t look at my passport stamps either.
Exchanging Money In Cuba
Credit & debit cards issued by American banks still don’t work in Cuba. So a trip to the island involves bringing lots of cash. How much? I’m planning to write a budget travel guide for Cuba soon, but to give you an idea, you can travel there comfortably on $50 – $100 per day.
Bring more than you need to be safe. If you run out, you’re out of luck!
Cuba actually has two different currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the “tourist” currency, pegged to the American dollar. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is what locals use, and worth a lot less. So when you exchange money as a tourist, you’ll receive CUC.
$1 USD = 1 CUC = 24 CUP
You can exchange US dollars for CUC, but there is a special 10% penalty fee for this service. So it’s cheaper to exchange Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds, or Mexican Pesos for CUC instead.
There’s an official currency exchange outside the airport in Havana. You can exchange your leftover CUC back to US dollars (or whatever) before you leave the country too.