Cuba Travel 101: Know Before You Go

Photo courtesy of Michael Thorson

Photo courtesy of Michael Thorson

So you want to go to Cuba? Doing your homework ahead of time is a must and will give you the added benefit of making your trip legal, safe and, most importantly, enjoyable. Not only have an increasing number of U.S. citizens been traveling to Cuba recently, but also legislation that once prevented travel between the two countries was relaxed in early 2015. Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ll have a better idea of the current travel policies in place, Cuba’s history up to today and the basis for starting to plan your own trip, along with an idea of all of the necessary documents that you need to have in possession before heading on your own trip to Cuba.

A Brief History

        Before 2010, all travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba was heavily restricted, an atmosphere that caused Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson to introduce a bill that would prevent not only the President from barring travel to Cuba, but also transactions that would allow for trips to the country. Soon after, general consensus and public support showed that most Americans would support travel to Cuba. Accordingly, in late 2014, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, announced policies that would loosen economic and travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, a major step towards unrestricted travel between the two countries. Since that point, the Office of Foreign Assets Controlhas required that U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba fall into one of 12 official categories as reason for their visit:

  1.     Family visits
  2.     Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3.     Journalistic activity
  4.     Professional research and professional 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 or research or educational institutes
  11. Exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials
  12. Certain export transactions

As is shown in the categories above, a lot is left open to interpretation regarding the exact details of a certain travel “purpose,” but further clarification is available through Cuban Assets Control Regulations documents that can be found through OFAC.

        Prior to Obama and Castro’s negotiations, travelers were required to apply for and acquire an official license for travel to Cuba. As of early 2015, however, that legislation has been relaxed, and trips that fall into one of the above-mentioned categories that have documentable proof of their intent of travel are not officially required to obtain such a license.

        While many of the visits to Cuba are entirely legal and fall within these constraints, some travelers take their chances and visit Cuba without an official reason. Some never suffer any consequences, but this is still a very risky proposition. Officially, being caught while traveling without an official reason could result in 10 years in prison, $250,000 in criminal fines and $55,000 in civil fines. While these numbers seem alarming, you fundamentally have the right to avoid self-incrimination and cannot be denied amnesty from the U.S. However, you may be subject to a long and arduous investigation once returning home. Obviously, traveling with a reason falling into the 12 categories above is the way to go.

Getting There

        You have your license, reason of travel and are ready to go. Now, how to actually get to Cuba! Currently, there are no regularly scheduled flights from the U.S. to Cuba, so you have two options:

  1. Obtain an official license from OFAC and charter a flight from the US to your Cuban destination of choice (Expensive!).
  2. (This option is a lot more practical), fly from a non-U.S. airport or split itineraries. If you either choose a starting point in Mexico or Canada or book a flight to either of those countries, and then a separate flight to Cuba, you’ll be on your way! One caveat: these flights may not be purchased in USD. Either find a card that can charge in a different currency or find a very generous friend who has one and is willing to let you use theirs. Try and book flights that arrive at Cuba in the mid-afternoon at the latest to give yourself some time to get situated once you’ve arrived.

Currency Conversion

        Another critical component of our journey will be converting your currency. USD isn’t accepted in Cuba legally, so converting to Cuban currency is a must. Since there are substantial fees for converting directly from USD to CUC in Cuba and Mexico, it’s best to first convert to Canadian dollars  or Euros while still in the U.S. through your bank for free, and then convert one of these two currencies once in Mexico or Cuba to avoid high conversion fees. Don’t rely on your debit or credit cards once you’re in Cuba — neither ATMs nor paying with card are common. Venture to Cuba with cash in hand, and be prepared to be mindful of where you pack it to avoid theft.

Important Documents

        Your last necessary item is your passport and a tourist visa (for travel to and from Cuba). Tourist visas can be acquired at most international airports outside of the U.S. (for our trip, we used Mexico City) and cost around $25. This visa is stamped for entry and exit of Cuba, not your original passport. Having a Cuban stamped U.S. passport is a no-no, so this is an important part of your requirements for travel.

Almost There!

        At this point, you should be mostly ready to go! A few more items that are beneficial: a travel guide, map of Cuba and a lodging reservation the first night you arrive. That way, it will be easier to adjust and get situated. Many websites online offer Airbnb-style reservation policies, although reservations are not much more than expressing interest in staying at a particular apartment or condo for the night. Beyond these personal accommodations, there are also mainstream hotels (more expensive), casa particulares (the most fun and authentic experience) and hostels. If you’re looking for the resort feel, then be prepared to spend more and book in advance. For a more authentic experience, a casa particular (similar to a hostel) rents individual rooms out for the night and includes home-cooked food for guests. Consider this a step above a hostel but still inexpensive. Due to Cuba’s recovering economic state, a charge of $40 CUC per night is on the high range for staying once at one of these houses and should provide for more than just a place to rest.


        That covers the basic need-to-know items for your trip. If you follow our above guidelines and do some work ahead of time to thoughtfully plan out your trip, you’ll have a no-hassle relaxed vacation. Look out for our second post coming after spring break for a recap of our own trip to Cuba, and happy traveling!