Around October of last year, travel restrictions to Cuba became somewhat more lenient for travelers departing from the US. Before October of 2016, those going to Cuba from the US had to either fly to another country first (e.g. Mexico, Dominican Republic) and from there catch another flight to Cuba, or had to sign up for tours with arranged itinerary and charter flights.
With travel restrictions being eased up, travelers can now hop on direct commercial flights from the US to Cuba. However, even though direct commercial flights are now available, US travelers are still not legally allowed to travel to Cuba as tourists. Wait, what? Yeap, that’s was our thought too when we first started looking into this subject. So let’s take a step back for a second. Not being able to travel to Cuba as tourists legally, essentially means that US travelers are not allowed to just lay at the beach or pool while sipping on mojitos. In other words, we are not allowed to simply chill back in Cuba.
Ok, so we are not allowed to enter Cuba as tourist, what do we do then? In order to travel to Cuba, you must apply for a travel visa under one of the twelve travel categories available (see the list below). Since we wanted to explore Cuba and do activities that were “people-to-people” activities, we applied for our travel visa under the category for “educational activities.” We weren’t going to Cuba to complete an educational degree or program and we weren’t affiliated with an educational institution. We were going to Cuba to learn about the culture, its people, their way of life, their economy, their food, the music…I think you get the picture. We went to Cuba with the purpose of educating ourselves of everything Cuban.
Many of the twelve travel categories can be interpreted broadly so the rule of thumb, in our opinion, is to choose one category that fits you or your group the best and stick to it. You will be asked to choose a travel category when you purchase your flight so make sure you choose one and stay consistent with your choice. Tip: although we were never asked to show our itinerary, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of your itinerary with you. For us, we found many resources online on people-to-people or educational activities to create our itinerary.
If you want to read more on the twelve travel categories, you can visit the OFAC website.
The 12 Approved Travel Categories
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
To obtain your travel visa you can try calling the airline to see if you can purchase the visa through them (either via the phone or at the airport counter when you check-in) or you can purchase the visa online beforehand though the travel agency Cuba Travel Services . Tip: the option to purchase the Cuba travel visa might not be available at all airports. Make sure to call the airline ahead of time to obtain more information.
Some of us flew with United Airlines and were able to purchase the travel visa during check-in at Newark Airport for the cost of USD$75, while others flew Delta and were able to purchase the travel visa beforehand by calling Delta customer service (cost USD$50). A few in our group flew with JetBlue and purchased the travel visa during check-in at JFK airport (cost USD$50). Since the options for purchasing a Cuba travel visa varies from airline to airline and from airport to airport, just be sure to call your airline and/or do research ahead of time.
During your research about traveling to Cuba, you might come across other websites through which travelers can purchase Cuba travel visas for roughly USD$20 to USD$25. We came across two of these websites during our research and both seemed legit. Even though these websites allow US passport holders to purchase Cuba travel visas, when we attempted to purchase our travel visas we got a warning or pop-up message telling us that we had to make sure our airlines would take the “green” version as opposed to the “pink” version (see below for example of warning message). We weren’t sure what was the difference between the green and the pink card and since we didn’t want to take the risk, we decided to purchase our travel visas either directly with the airline or at the airport during check-in.
Once you have your travel visa, make sure to fill out both sides accurately and consistently. When you arrive in Cuba, the immigration officer will take one part of your travel visa. The second part will be collected when you depart Cuba, so be sure to keep the second portion of your travel visa safe. We were told that if you make a mistake when filling out the visa, avoid scratching out the error and leave the mistake as is.
On top of obtaining a travel visa, you will also need to purchase a travel health insurance. Some airlines might already include this insurance as part of your ticket cost so make sure to confirm this with the airline when you purchase your flight (your ticket will be your proof of travel health insurance). If your flight does not include a travel health insurance and you need to purchase this separately, expect to pay around USD$25 according to what we have read or heard from others. Travel health insurance is a must when you travel to Cuba. And though we were never asked to show proof of insurance, if you are stopped and asked to show proof you can be denied entry to Cuba if you don’t have one.
So now that we have gone over travel visas and travel health insurances, let’s talk about cash or currency in Cuba. US credit cards will not work in Cuba (not even at large hotel chains) so bring enough cash to last you the entire trip. If you own credit cards that are not issued by US banks, still bring cash in your trip as Cuba has pretty much a cash basis economy so most places will not accept credit cards. Again, BRING CASH!
There’s currently two currencies in Cuba, the CUC (the convertible peso) and the CUP (national peso or “moneda nacional”). Tourists will mostly stick to CUC since it’s what is used to pay taxis, restaurants, hotels, etc. The CUP is really mostly used by the locals, and can also be used by tourists to purchase small items like fruits at the local market or bread at the local bakery. CUC has a rate of about 1 CUC= 1 USD (before conversion fees which is explained later) and CUP has a rate of roughly 1 CUC = 25 CUP, so in essence CUC has a higher denomination or value then CUP. You will not be able to obtain CUC or CUP outside of Cuba (not even at airport exchange offices in your home country) so do not try to go to your local bank or exchange office to get Cuban currency. Tip: to distinguish between the two Cuban currencies, CUC has monuments or statues while CUP has faces.
To exchange for CUC, you can go to a Cadeca exchange office or bank in Cuba. If you want to obtain some CUP, you must first exchange to CUC and then do a second/separate transaction to exchange CUC to CUP. Cadeca exchange offices are not hard to find around Havana and they have shorter lines than the banks so we recommend that you go to Cadecas to exchange currencies. Check all your bills to make sure that they don’t have any tears or rips. Even the smallest rip on a bill can be rejected by the banks or currency exchange offices. You will be asked for your passport when you exchange currencies so make sure to carry it with you. Tip: we recommend that you do not exchange all your money at once because Cuban currency has no use outside of Cuba, try to exchange as needed.
As for the subject of currency conversion fees, all money exchanges carry a 3% transaction fee and there will an additional 10% fee if you are exchanging USD to CUC. When we went to Cuba in February 2017, the prevailing currency rate after the transaction fees was about 1 USD = 0.88 and 1 EUR = 1 CUC. We took a portion of our cash in EUR and since the rate at the time was 1 EUR = 1 CUC, we were able to pay for things using EUR (instead of CUC) at some places such as restaurants and gift shops. This helps up save a few trips to the currency exchange place or the bank. If you are planning to do the same, just be sure to asked beforehand if they are accepting EUR as a form of payment, don’t just assume.
To round everything up:
- Pick one of twelve approved travel category
- Purchase Cuba travel visa
- Put together an itinerary that fits the travel category of your choosing
- Purchase travel health insurance (if not already included with your flight)
- Credit cards use in general is very limited and those issued by US banks do not work in Cuba
- Cuba has a cash basis economy so BRING ENOUGH CASH for your trip
- Two Cuba currencies: CUC (the convertible peso) and CUP (“moneda nacional”)
- Before conversion fees, 1 USD = 1 CUC and 1 CUC = 25 CUP
- Try to stick to CUC as CUP is mostly used by locals
- Exchange your home currency to CUC at currency exchange offices called Cadecas or at banks (longer lines)