How to Travel to Cuba (as a U.S. Citizen)
When this elusive nation finally opened to US travelers, it immediately became a hot topic. My trip to Cuba in spring 2018 led me to realize how curious my friends in the US are about life here, and how to travel to Cuba themselves!
Details on my Cuba itinerary are in my other blog post. This post is geared towards the logistics of traveling there as a US citizen specifically:
Cuba is easily the most unique place I’ve traveled to. That word is often overused, but this country really exemplifies it. Their system of life and the way things operate are so totally different from anything I’ve ever experienced in any of my other travels.
To experience Cuba in full, and go beyond the cigars, mojitos, and glamorized old cars, you need to visit more than just Havana. You also really need to stay with a family in a casa particular (homestay). Actually as a US citizen, that’s technically the only lodging you should use at all!
Photos may have you thinking Cuba is all just sun and artfully crumbling pastel buildings. While that’s part of it, it doesn’t paint the whole picture. Just like anywhere, one scenic street is not the whole story.
Let’s dive in now with a few of the most commonly asked questions:
Do I need to know Spanish? You can get by on just English in most tourist destinations, but in Cuba it’s far less widely spoken. This is one of few places I’ve traveled where it was truly difficult to find English speakers (I loved it!). You will also miss out on so many great interactions if you don’t speak even a little bit of Spanish. It’s definitely worth it to brush up before you go.
I have a US Passport, do I need a visa to travel there? Yes! I’ll get into that below.
What are the 12 visa categories? For Americans, there are 12 official categories of “authorized” travel. Note that none of them really cover tourism or “travel for fun”.
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization
So what do most Americans do that want to travel in Cuba? They go under the “support for the Cuban people” category. They get their visa at the US airport, and go from there!
How do I visit independently and still travel by the rules? As of 2019, the rules state that Americans must travel to Cuba either as part of an organized and approved tour group, or independently under a category like this. If you want to closely follow the policy as an independent or “for leisure” traveler, there are a few rules for you to follow.
1.) Declare your visa category, and do your best to follow it. This is usually done when you book your flight, and again when you get your visa.
2.) In Cuba, stay only at casas particulares. Don’t stay at hotels, particularly government sponsored ones.
3.) Try to eat only at local, independent business (paladares) and only purchase items or souvenirs from local businesses too.
4.) Don’t stay at any hotels banned by the US State Department, and don’t spend money on any military owned businesses.
5.) Try to keep your receipts and records of what you did each day. I feel that it’s highly unlikely you will ever be asked about it, but technically you could get in trouble if you can’t prove that your trip truly fit into one of the 12 categories.
6.) Do your research and create an itinerary full of activities that follow the category. Look up local businesses, home-stays, and activities. There are also several companies online that give you tips from local experts!
Can I go there as a tourist and just relax on the beach? Technically yes, but then you also probably aren’t following your visa requirements. Is anybody going to get you in trouble and come after you? Probably not. But then again, you ideally didn’t come to Cuba only for the beach. So yes, technically you can go to Cuba just for “tourism”. Given that I suffer from anxiety though, I found it best to closely follow the rules. Also why you even want to support the government over the amazing people of Cuba is something I wouldn’t understand!
What if I don’t want to fly there directly from the US? This would be considered visiting Cuba via a “gateway city”. Travelers have been doing this for years, and you still can today. I haven’t done this, so I can’t say for sure, but I think that they just wouldn’t stamp your passport and then nobody would ever know you were there.
Can I fly directly to Cuba from the US? Yes, that’s what I did. We flew from Atlanta to Havana with Delta. We selected our visa category online when we bought our plane ticket. We arrived early to the gate, filled out some paperwork, paid $50, and voila- a visa! It might not be the same with every airport though, so call and check beforehand if you’re unsure.
What happens when I land in the Havana airport? I can only speak from my own experience, but the process was really simple and relaxed. The passport control officer didn’t even ask me what I was doing there. That was also the case for all the other American travelers on our flight. They just looked at the visa, gave me a stamp (directly in my passport), and off we went.
What do Americans do about money there? Credit & debit cards from American banks don’t work here. I’ll be honest, this part was rough. You have to be meticulous in your planning so you have an idea of how much cash you need, and then you just have to arrive fully loaded down with bills. Bring more than you need, because if you run out, I am honestly not sure what you would do. We split our money up in different bags and hiding places, and only brought out what we would need for the day.
What currency do Cubans use? Confusingly, Cuba has two currencies: One that is generally used by locals (CUP- Cuban Peso), and one primarily used by tourists (CUC- Cuban Convertible Peso). You definitely lose money paying the tourist prices with the tourist currency, but that’s just the way is. One thing we didn’t know is that when you try to exchange US dollars to CUC there is a 10% penalty fee. Good advice is to exchange your money over to something else (like Canadian Dollars or Euros) beforehand, otherwise you’ll get screwed like we did.
How do I get from place to place? Simple- walk around the main plazas or squares of any city, and you will find someone advertising a colectivo (share taxi). Ask them the price for where you want to go, and arrange a pickup time. Done!
If you want to pay a little bit more, your casa particular host family most likely has someone they can call to arrange this for you. No need to plan this out in advance. I am a very anxious traveler and hated leaving transportation up to the last minute, but it worked out fine and that’s the way things are done there.
Are colectivos sketchy? Will I be safe? While the cars are old, roads are in fair condition, there are no seat-belts, and definitely no air-conditioning, yes- you will be safe. Despite being hot and crammed together, we didn’t have any issues with the colectivos. If you are willing to pay a bit more, it could be a good idea to request a private transport (meaning no stopping to pick up and drop off people all along the route) though.
What do I do about WiFi? At the time of my visit in spring 2018, the only way to get WiFi was to purchase a prepaid card. You would pay, for example, around 5CUC for 2 hours of WiFi. You could only access WiFi in certain public places and hotels, and even then it was patchy and not very reliable or fast. Apparently though, things are changing, and soon this won’t be the case. For up to date information check this post by blogger Bacon is Magic, she updates frequently!
Am I still an ethical traveler if I go to Cuba? This is tough to say, and depends on you as a traveler and the interactions and financial transactions you are part of. I think it’s probably close to impossible that even some of your money won’t end up in the hands of the Cuban government. However, I also think the good your money is doing for the average citizen is outweighing the bad.
Don’t try to idealize the crumbling buildings and old cars, even though it may be easy to. While admittedly photogenic, keep in mind that these belong to people trying to get by and live comfortably in homes and cars that are very old and quite possibly falling apart. Don’t be arrogant, be a kind and conscientious visitor. Engage in meaningful conversations with locals. Be polite and have an open mind. Really the same rules apply here as visiting any other country! Every place has its flaws, so embrace them, and you will come to love this beautiful Caribbean nation. How to travel to Cuba?
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The sheer mention of Cuba brings memories of olden and classy vans. It’s good that you went outside of Havana for there is much to do. When I get to Cuba someday, I will definitely follow your advice.
Thank you Michelle! Very cool!
Great info I think you covered it well, just two minor changes
1) The two currencies aren’t for tourists and locals. Tourists can use both and Cubans absolutely use both. The exchange is 24CUP -1CUC.
I’m a Canadian based in Havana and I’ve even paid for groceries with half CUC and half CUP. Both stores keep both currencies as part of their cash register. The only issue is that you have to carry around A LOT of CUP to equal the same amount of CUC – so even Cubans prefer to carry their bigger bills in CUC for fear of a Castanza-type wallet.
And Internet is 1 CUC per hour. If you go to a hotel you’ll likely pay more but you can go to ETECSA, the government internet supplier and buy either 1 hour or 5 hour cards. Internet has improved rapidly even in a year – I update this post monthly and it also covers buying SIM cards and roaming charges for Canadians and Americans. https://www.baconismagic.ca/cuba/wifi-internet-in-cuba/
Thanks for the update! I’ll link to your post- very helpful! We got some CUP from the bank but a lot of the places we went refused to accept them from us, which was frustrating (probably as we were in touristy areas). I will update now, I appreciate the help!