While relations between Cuba & the United States are improving, it’s still technically illegal to travel there. Here’s how you can travel to Cuba as an American anyway.
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 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. You can see the full list here.
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
In April 2016 I traveled to Cuba as an American with my girlfriend Anna from Anna Everywhere and our friends Hannah & Adam from Getting Stamped. We traveled through the popular foreign gateway city of Cancun, Mexico.
You can buy a 30 day Cuban tourist visa at the airport there for $20.
It can be purchased the at the check in counter (or while waiting in line) before your flight. The visa is a separate card you keep with your passport, but it’s not attached.
We flew into Havana from Cancun on the Mexican budget airline Interjet for $240 USD round trip, and the flight took about an hour.
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 seems to be similar for some people. You get your visa at the airport checkin counter.
But some reports suggest that it’s not the same everywhere. Plus the price of your Cuban visa is more expensive when leaving from the United States. I’ve heard reports of $50 instead of $20.
For these reasons, I recommend calling your airline beforehand to verify.
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.
Cuba requires all tourists to have (non-American) travel medical insurance before visiting. Some people have been forced to provide proof of their insurance, and if they can’t, they must buy a special Cuban travel insurance package for about $10 a day.
When I visited Cuba though, no one asked about my travel insurance. So I’m not sure how much this requirement is enforced these days.
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.
Accommodation In Cuba
You’ll find some hotels & resorts in the most popular tourist cities like Havana, Trinidad, and Varadero. But they generally aren’t cheap. To travel on a budget in Cuba, you’ll want to stay with locals in casas particulares.
A “casa particular” is like a homestay or guesthouse in someone’s home. They sometimes include breakfast, and run between $20 – $30 per night for a double room. To operate a casa particular, local families need to register & pay special taxes to the Cuban government.
Most casa’s don’t have websites, so you just walk around and ask about availability when you get there. If one is booked, the owner will usually help you find another nearby.
AirBnB is now operating in Cuba too! We booked our first two nights in Havana through AirBnB.
Transportation In Cuba
Cuban Bus System
Cuba has a government run bus company for tourists called Viazul that covers most of the country. Tickets aren’t very expensive, but you can’t book them online yet, and popular routes sell out fast. Which means you might need to buy your ticket in person at the station the day before.
Renting A Car
We rented a modern car in Cuba for 6 of the 10 days we were there. Renting a car in Cuba isn’t easy or cheap. There aren’t many vehicles available yet, so you generally have to book a car at least 2 weeks in advance by calling or emailing the company.
When we arrived in Havana, we tried to rent a car directly at the airport with no reservation, and were told repeatedly there were no cars left. Eventually Anna found a guy who said he had two, but from the same company who earlier said they had none, Via Rent A Car (they have no website, but you can book online through other sites like Cuba Junky).
So it seemed a bit shady/strange… but we ultimately got one.
Renting a car in Cuba with insurance is going to cost you between $70 – $90 USD per day. It’s not cheap! Luckily we split the cost between 4 of us. There’s also a $200 cash deposit required.
The other option for traveling around Cuba is to rent a vintage American car with driver. This isn’t cheap unless you split the cost with a few people.
Hailing a vintage taxi for a short ride in town will cost you $8 – $10. Renting one for a longer 2-3 hour trip can cost around $60 -$70 USD depending on your bargaining skills.
Split between 4 people, our 3 hour vintage taxi ride from Havana to Viñales cost $60, about the same as 4 bus tickets, but we could stop anytime we wanted for photos or snacks. The cars are super cool too!
I’ve also heard it’s possible to rent one for a full day for $100 – $120.
Internet In Cuba
Despite popular opinion, there is some internet access in Cuba. That wasn’t always the case though. For many years Cuba was one of the least connected countries in the world. The government does censor some stuff though, like access to Snapchat or anti-government blogs.
These days you can get connected through Cuba’s state run ETECSA telecom company. Tourists can buy ETECSA prepaid wifi cards at special kiosks for $2 – $3 per hour of service.
These scratch-off type cards provide a username and password for ETECSA wifi networks, which can be found at major hotels or in public parks around the country.
You can often buy additional cards from locals in the park or at a hotel front desk for about $6. The internet isn’t blazing fast, but you can certainly upload web-sized photos to Facebook & Instagram.
Cuban Exit Fee
As of May 1, 2015 Cuba no longer charges the $25 CUC exit fee to travelers leaving the country, this fee is now included in the price of your airline.
Can You Bring Back Cigars?
I thought you’d never ask! So officially, if you are traveling to Cuba under one of the 12 special categories, you are now allowed to bring back $400 worth of souvenirs, including up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars. Yay!
Does that mean $100 of official branded cigars with a receipt? What if you buy unbranded “loose” cigars from a tobacco farmer in Viñales for $1 each?
Well I don’t know for sure, but I did manage to bring 30 Cuban cigars back into the United States. I was never questioned about tobacco, and it’s not listed on the customs form as something I have to declare.
Buying Cuban cigars in another country, like Mexico, and bringing them back to the US is still illegal. If you decide to try, do so at your own risk!
Most Recent Changes
To learn more about the legality of traveling to Cuba as an American, check out the Treasury Department’s Cuba FAQ. ★
Useful Notes: While technically it’s still illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba for tourism only, in practice people are going anyway and not getting in trouble. It seems there is no one enforcing these rules as the government attempts to jump-start tourism & business there.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Cuba
Suggested Reading: The Other Side Of Paradise
READ NEXT: Horseback Riding In Vinales Cuba
Have any questions about how to travel in Cuba? Are you planning a trip there? Drop me a message in the comments below!
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.