It’s no secret that Cuba has been all over the news recently. For the first time in decades, the US has eased up its travel restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba, leaving many Americans wondering, “how can I travel to Cuba?”
In preparation for the masses, US airlines are now competing like crazy to secure non-stop flights to Cuba from the US, with the first flights already starting in September 2016. But regardless of the airlines, Americans are already beginning to visit in hordes, and it’s only going to get crazier in 2017. And while it may seem like a free-for-all, there are still some restrictions for US citizens.
You may have already done a little research and scanned some relevant articles; hopelessly trying to translate the government jargon explaining exactly what these restrictions are. Maybe you heard that there are 12 types of travel, but can’t figure out if your trip falls into these categories. Maybe you heard that you can travel through Mexico, but are worried about getting your passport stamped. We don’t blame you. Information is vague at best and is pretty confusing.
We’re here to clear that all up for you. I (a California girl) have traveled to Cuba twice. The first time I visited Cuba illegally in 2013 (full story here), before the restrictions were eased. And again, legally in April 2016.
US to Cuba Travel Categories: What’s Up With That?
So USA travel to Cuba is not entirely lifted. Instead they’ve changed the process from a lengthy bureaucratic headache to basically an honor system. There are now 12 travel categories in which you can legally travel to Cuba as an American. Whether you’re flying from the US to Cuba, or passing through a gateway country, you must qualify for one of these categories:
(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 information materials
(12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
In accordance with the law, all of your trip should be spent doing one of these activities. This means that taking a trip to Cuba for a holiday and kicking back with a mojito on the beach is still not technically allowed for Americans. However, in reality, there are already thousands of Americans visiting Cuba for just those purposes. Good luck trying to take the mojito out of their hands!
The bottom line is that the Cuba travel categories are extremely vague, I mean, have you seen that list? It could just about cover anything. Maybe doing ‘educational activities’ requires you to test the water quality at different beaches, or perhaps your ‘professional research’ involves sampling which rum you like best.
Need more info on traveling to Cuba as a US citizen and getting a visa? Check out our new Cuba travel guide!
Don’t Fit Into One of These Categories?
What? You mean you’re not headed to Cuba for “exportation, importation or transmission of information?” You’re going simply to enjoy the Cuban culture and explore a uniquely interesting destination? Well luckily you’re not alone. If you’re not feeling game enough to fly from the USA to Cuba under a self-appointed license, you have a couple of other options.
Flying to Cuba From Mexico or Canada
First, you could just go through a gateway country. There are very few direct flights from the States at the moment, so chances are you’ll be entering from another country away. Depending on where you live in the US, you can easily book a flight to Cuba from Canada or Mexico. Once you pass through the gateway country you can go directly from there without ever having to worry about the US government.
Join a ‘Person to Person’ Cuba Tour
Second, you can join a “person to person” tour company that takes Americans down to Cuba under “educational activities.” If you don’t mind being on a tour this is a perfectly legal, albeit somewhat expensive, way to visit Cuba.
Pick a Cuba Travel Category
Third, you could just pick a category that you think you could get away with. Okay, that sounds a bit sketchy, but considering how open-ended some of the categories are, it’s pretty easy. Seriously, one of them is simply “support for the Cuban people.” What does that even mean? Surely buying cocktails helps support the economy… and therefore support the people. No?!
We went as “journalists.” The categories are very general, so you’d be very hard pressed to find a type of travel that you didn’t fit into. What I’m trying to say is, just go. You won’t be thrown in jail, you won’t be fined. Obama’s down with it, Cuba is definitely down with it, you’re good to go.
Does Cuba Stamp Your Passport?
When we went in 2013, immigration in Cuba understood that it was illegal for Americans to visit to Cuba. Instead of stamping my passport they stamped a piece of paper, put it inside my passport and then took the paper out when I left the country. No evidence left behind.
Now that it’s legal for (some) Americans, it’s possible to get your passport stamped. When you leave Cuba, immigration will now ask if you want your passport stamped. It’s up to you. I had them stamp my passport because I wanted a souvenir. When I came back into the US I was curious to see if I would have to explain my reasons for going to Cuba, but the immigration officer flipped through my passport and didn’t ask any questions. They literally could not have been bothered less.
Using Social Media in Cuba
Another thing not to worry about at all! The government isn’t going to track you down via your social media accounts to see if you’ve been to Cuba. Heck, if they do, Obama might even Like a couple of your photos.
We blasted out Tweets, sweet Instagram pics and updates constantly while in Cuba. We’ve written on our blog extensively about traveling to Cuba… illegally. If they aren’t coming after us, you’ll be just fine!
What About Money?
Oooh, the money in Cuba! Well, according to the US embassy site, all US debit and credit cards, as well as cards from US-based banks, will not work as of yet. Even attempting to log-on to your US bank online could lock you out of your account until you leave the country. This will most likely start changing in the future, but it’s better not to bank on it. See what I did there?
Instead of using a debit card, most people bring cash. Yes, bringing 3 weeks worth of cash can be a little scary, but as American there aren’t many options. To make matters even more frustrating there is a 10% fee added to all exchanges using US dollars (although I’m pretty sure we heard rumors of this being changed soon).
Your best bet is to come to Cuba with Euros, Canadian dollars or Mexican pesos. You can exchange these for the local currency with no extra fee at a local cadeca, aka a money-changing facility.
Exchanging Cuban Currency
There are two types of currencies in Cuba. The first is the Cuban convertible or CUC (pronounced kook or say-ooh-say) and it is always 1:1 with the US dollar. CUC is generally used more by tourists. The other type is the Cuban peso or CUP, referred to simply as pesos or moneda nacional (national money). This type is used more by locals and worth much less than the CUC. In Cuba they exchange 25CUP for 1CUC.
Other Things to Note
It’s mandatory that all travelers have travel insurance for Cuba. And believe me, after spending a week in the Havana hospital with Dengue Fever, I highly recommend getting it. If you don’t have travel insurance you may be stopped at the airport and forced to buy the local insurance.
Americans buying travel insurance in Cuba can be a bit tricky. The easiest and most reliable one we’ve found is World Nomads. They cover American travel to Cuba and they are one of the most well-known in the travel industry. We use them and have for years.
Now that we’ve explained how to travel to Cuba legally as an American, you’re all set to go! But don’t rush off just let and book your flight, there are still many things to know about traveling to Cuba! For all the most updated and relevant Cuba travel information be sure to check out our new book, The Authentic Cuba Travel Guide! You can even get a FREE chapter of the book, “Top 10 Cuba Travel Hacks”, by entering you’re email below!
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