Look no further for your guide on how to travel to Cuba as an American citizen.
Relations between the United States and Cuba – this is no secret – have been chilly, at best, for approximately the last 55 or so. In 1960, President Eisenhower put an economic embargo on Cuba after a young Fidel Castro began cozying up to the Soviet Union. A year later, in 1961, all ties were cut between the U.S. and Cuba. Lots has happened since then – including a lot of back and forth. But President Obama finally decided that we can’t keep doing the same thing “and expecting a different result.” So, the normalizing of relations between the two countries began in 2015.
Since then, American citizens have been clamoring to get to Cuba – especially travel lovers like yours truly. I knew I wanted to go as soon as I heard diplomatic relations had opened up. It was a huge plus that flights didn’t seem to be too expensive from Florida ($50-60 one way from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport). So, after convincing a couple of high school friends to head to Havana with me for a long weekend, we made the trip! I just got back a few days ago – and it was stellar!
I’ve already gotten a ton of questions on what it’s like there, how to get there, what to expect, etc., so I wanted to write a helpful guide for anyone that wants to know how to travel to Cuba as an American citizen. So, without further ado, here we go!
Travel is still restricted
The first thing you should know is that travel is still actually restricted. What that means is that you can’t go to Cuba strictly for tourism. In practice, it’s hard to say how much this actually effects travel to Cuba – in fact, I met some people while there that definitely seemed to just be touristing about. But “officially” the U.S. government says you can’t go wander around Cuba just to be a tourist.
You must meet one of 12 categories
So if you can’t go as a tourist, what can you go to Cuba for? Well, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued 12 categories for allowable travel to Cuba. They are as follows, taken directly from the U.S. embassy’s website: “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 informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions.”
If you meet one of the 12 categories, you don’t need to get a special license to travel to Cuba. The categories are fairly broad, but it is still a really good idea to make sure you meet the requirements for one of the categories before you go. Many people go under the “support for Cuban people” or person-to-person license. I went under the journalistic activity license, for which you have to be (among other possibilities) a freelance journalist with previous journalistic experience – and have a schedule of activities consistent with your journalism goals.
Depending on your airline, you may have to specify which of the 12 categories you plan to go under or you may just have to certify that you meet one of the 12, without specifics.
Purchasing your Visa isn’t hard
Despite the travel restrictions, purchasing your Visa isn’t that hard. You can get it through certain travel agencies before you go (I didn’t do this) or you can just purchase it at the airport before you head out. I flew Jet Blue there, which made the process really easy. A quick check-in and then payment of $50 for the Cuban “tourist card.” Yes – despite that the U.S. government says you can’t go as a tourist, the Visa requirement by the Cuban government is called a tourist card. One of my friends traveling with me flew Spirit, and she said the card was more expensive: $100.
The Cuban government also requires you have insurance before arriving – if you fly Jetblue, they provide this with the cost of the ticket. Otherwise, you can get insurance from a third-party provider, like (my favorite and the best choice), World Nomads.
Be prepared for a separate line at the airport
While JetBlue does make the whole process really easy (one of the many reasons I love this airline!), my travel companion and I didn’t realize we needed to be in an entirely separate line for Cuba travel. This line is distinct from the domestic travel line, of course, but also from the other international travel line. It went by sort of slowly, but ultimately, it was nice to have a dedicated airline rep to make sure everything was tip top.
And make sure you have a return ticket
If you’re thinking about using travel to Cuba to bounce off a long leg of other international travel, well…don’t. You’ll need proof of exit before you go, so while you may end up deciding to book an onward ticket to another country before taking off from the States, it’s more likely you’ll find that a round trip ticket is cheaper. I planned to go from Havana either to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republica or to Guatemala City. I found, though, that either of those flights out from Havana were wildly expensive and that – oddly – it made more sense to fly back to the States and then fly out again to Central America.
You can book an airBNB beforehand
Although some of the articles you find on the web say that you need to get to Cuba and then find a place to stay, this isn’t the case anymore for American citizens. Before I went, I booked an apartment on airBNB. You can still arrive and then look for a place to stay, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you want to do that, however, it won’t be too bad. You’ll ask around for a bit and find some people either willing to help you find a place or willing to let you stay with them, as a homestay. We met a man from Essex who had arrived in the country with no place to stay but easily found some great digs.
Expect food to be cheap…
I was pleasantly surprised to find lots of vegan food – beans, rice, veggies, pasta, sandwiches with no dairy – for very, very cheap. My first night there, I had a plate of spaghetti for less than 3 dollars. Of course, you need to pay for water (can’t drink from the tap, so we got bottled water everywhere we went), but still, the cost of food and sustenance isn’t too much in Cuba.
…And cabs to be expensive
One of my friends that traveled with me mentioned he had a friend that told him to rent a car. Since he didn’t want to drive (and I sure as hell didn’t want to drive) we chose to skip that plan and instead take cabs. And, well, we paid for it. From our airBNB, which was near the university, to the downtown area, the cab was about $10. Actually from our airBNB to about anywhere, except the airport, the cabs were about $10. To the airport was $25. So yeah, what we saved on food we definitely made up for with transportation.
Make sure places you go accept CUCs – and bring enough cash (in Euros, if possible)
The currency for the locals and tourists is different. The local currency is CUPs, the tourist currency is CUCs. Most places in Havana seemed to accept CUCs, but double check this before buying anything. And make sure you can get change back in CUCs. I very rarely change currency at the airport, but this time, I did. Credit and debit cards won’t work in Cuba, so you need to have more than enough cash to last your entire trip. Also, if you are changing USD, you will pay a 10% penalty. It’s better to try to grab Euros from a bank in the States before heading to Cuba so that you can change Euros into CUCs and not get hit with the penalty.
Be prepared for no WiFi and no cell service or data
There is no private WiFi in Cuba, so your airBNB or homestay won’t have WiFi. The best way to get WiFi is to buy an internet card at a public park and sit around on your phone. That’s how the locals do it. When we first bought the card, we were a bit nervous because it was just a random dude pulling internet cards out of his pocket. But apparently, that’s how it’s done. When you get the card, it may be ripped, but just make sure the scratch off portion – where you get the password – isn’t scratched off. For one hour of internet, it was about 3 CUCs – and CUCs to USD are about one to one.
Also, don’t expect to use your cell phone. I have T-Mobile’s best international plan and my prices were $2 per MB of data…definitely not anything that I wanted to pay. So I turned my data roaming off and kept my phone in airplane mode the entire trip.
Also no toilet seat covers
This was something I didn’t read about anywhere or foresee: there are no toilet seat covers in most places in Cuba. From what I understand, toilet seats are seen as a luxury, so what you get in most places is just a bowl. So if you’re a lady, expect to squat-hold everytime you have to pee. For what it’s worth, your thighs will be stronger by the time you leave.
And make sure you chat with the locals!
We had some great experiences – and some interesting ones. We met a bar owner who told us he had tried to build a boat to get to the U.S. three times – and had gotten caught three times. I was surprised because I didn’t realize people spoke that openly about wanting to leave Cuba in Cuba. It was sad, but I was still glad to have met him and gotten his perspective.
Traveling to Cuba was a great, interesting experience. I would definitely recommend it – and I’d recommend being prepared before you go!