04 Mar 2018 1st Hand Guide for Americans Traveling To Cuba 2018
Americans have been impatient for the day when travel to Cuba is possible. The wait is finally over, sort of…. Traveling to Cuba has been getting easier and easier. We just returned from a 10-day trip to Cuba and have been flooded with Cuba travel questions from all the Americans traveling to Cuba or who want to travel to Cuba in the future.
In this Cuba guide for Americans traveling to Cuba we’re going to cover (jump to):
- Cuban visas for Americans
- Travel to Cuba from the US
- Is it legal for Americans to travel to Cuba?
- Money in Cuba
- Insurance requirement to travel to Cuba
- Cuba exit fee
- Wifi in Cuba
Americans Traveling To Cuba Guide
How To Get A Cuba Visa/Cuban Visas/etc
Americans traveling to Cuba in 2018 will need to obtain a Cuban tourist card, which is similar to a travel visa. Unfortunately, Americans cannot travel to Cuba for just tourism. All American travel to Cuba has to fall within the 12 authorized travel categories per the state department.
12 categories of authorized travel for Americans traveling to Cuba
- 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.
During our trip to Cuba, no one asked us what authorized category we were traveling under. If it would have come up, we would have cited, journalistic activity and presented a business card. We personally know at least five people who have traveled to Cuba from Mexico (specifically Cancun airport) who were never asked any questions pertaining to authorized travel when obtaining their Cuban tourist card/Cuban visa.
In reality, it’s the U.S. that has an issue with Americans traveling to Cuba. The Cuban government has no issue with it and they want American tourists in Cuba.
We cannot guarantee that you won’t be asked what category you fall under or what documents you will need to show, this was our experience.
Is It Legal For Americans To Travel To Cuba: YES
In January of 2015, President Obama expanded the categories of authorized travel to Cuba. It was great news for Americans traveling to Cuba, or all Americans who always wanted to travel to Cuba (like us!). This expansion allowed U.S. citizens to legally travel to Cuba if they fell in one of the 12 categories. In previous years, most travel to Cuba required applying for a license and jumping through a bunch of hoops, which was often confusing and quite frustrating. Now Americans can “self-license” if they believe they fall within one of the authorized categories.
Click here to read frequently asked questions about the relaxed policy online by the Treasury Department.
How To Travel To Cuba From The US
You may notice when you use your favorite search engines like Orbitz, you cannot find flights from the US to Cuba or flights from Cancun to Cuba. *Skyscanner does work* Flights to Cuba typically need to be booked directly with the airline itself, we purchased our flight online with Interjet. Other airlines that service Cuba from Mexico: Copa, Aeromexico, Avianca, and Cubana.
We traveled in April 2016 and purchased our flight from Cancun to Havana only 2 weeks in advance for $250, which included checked bags. For Americans traveling to Cuba, going from Mexico was super easy and the most affordable option. The best way to get the flights sorted out it to purchase a round-trip flight to Cancun or the cheapest Mexico destination you would be willing to go to, then book a round-trip flight to Havana, Cuba from that city on a separate ticket. When searching for flights please note Havana is listed as La Habana.
Flights to Cuba from Canada are another great option for Americans traveling to Cuba. A quick flight search for a round-trip ticket from Toronto to Havana for 4 weeks and it was $308. Vancouver to Cuba was a little more at $695, round-trip.
Money In Cuba
Within Cuba, there are two different currencies, the CUC and the CUP. As a tourist, you will use only CUC the Cuban Convertible Peso which is equal to the U.S. Dollar. The CUP is the local Cuban Currency. 1 CUC = 24 CUP. It’s technically illegal for tourists to have, or use the local CUP currency.
If you’re an American traveling to Cuba, don’t plan on using the ATM machine. US-based bank, credit or debit cards don’t work in Cuba. You’ll have to estimate the amount of money needed for your entire trip.
Exchanging money in Cuba should be simple, but it’s not. There is a 10% penalty for exchanging USD on top of the standard fees for money exchange in Cuba. The best, and cheapest, an option is to withdraw money in Mexico or Canada at an ATM. You may need to notify your bank to increase the daily limit and alert them to the amount you are withdrawing and the country you are withdrawing in. We found the exchange rate at the time of our trip was best for Mexican Pesos. Another option is buying Euros/Canadian Dollars/Pesos in the USA and bringing them into Cuba with you. However, after the extra fees to buy them, and then the standard money exchange fees in Cuba, it might end up being essentially the same cost as the 10% USD penalty in Cuba.
There are talks about eliminating the 10% penalty on exchanging USD in Cuba, but as of April 2016 it is still in effect.
Insurance Requirement In Cuba
Cuba requires all travelers to have travel medical insurance. However, we were never asked at Cuban immigration if we had travel medical insurance, nor were any of our friends who traveled to Cuba in 2015 or 2016.
The medical insurance you have in the USA will not cover you in Cuba. We always buy travel insurance with World Nomads that includes medical and personal property (theft/damage). Click here for travel insurance prices and coverages. For a one-week policy, it’s $51 per person. It’s best to purchase a policy just so you’re covered if asked to provide proof of insurance as well as being safe if anything happens to you while traveling in Cuba.
Cuba Exit Fee
As of May 1, 2015, Cuba no longer charges the $25 CUC exit fee. The fee is now collected by the airline as part of your ticket purchase price.
How Is The Wifi In Cuba
We expected to be offline the entire time we were in Cuba. But, we were pleasantly surprised! There are Wifi hotspots in all the best places in Cuba, and they are easily spottable. We discovered town plazas, squares, and parks often had a hotspot. In general, if you see tons of people on their phones or laptops, there’s a hotspot for sure. In Havana, several hotels had wifi right in the lobby. There were 4 wifi hotspots within a 2 block radius of our casa in Old Town Havana. For some more info on getting connected in Cuba, check out Two Scots Abroad post on the internet and wifi in Cuba.
To access wifi in Cuba you need to purchase prepaid 1-hour wifi cards. Then, find a wifi zone and look for a network called WIFI-ETSCA. Finally, just log in, and enter the username & password. Once you’re finished, don’t forget to log out and save the remaining time for your next session. We purchased ETSCA cards for $2 an hour at the airport. If you see an ETSCA building anywhere in Cuba they will sell them for the same price. We purchased additional cards at a tourism office in Trinidad Cuba. The cards are also available at hotels, though they charge $6 an hour for non-guests. If you reach the end of your trip and have some wifi to burn, there is an ETSCA wifi hotspot at the airport to use up your remaining credit.
There is Wifi in Cuba! But not every computer or app will work. For example, I have an iPhone 6 plus and was unable to download anything in iTunes, use Snapchat, or Skype. My friend has an older Samsung and she was able to use Snapchat. Neither of us could get the internet to work on our MacBook Pro. It would connect to the wifi, but never actually go online. The same thing happened to another friend with a MacBook Pro. Just to be safe, bring an older, backup, device to connect to the Wifi in addition to your current phone.
As more Americans begin to travel to Cuba, the changes will continue and traveling to Cuba will be easier and easier. We already can’t wait to visit Cuba again, 10 days wasn’t nearly enough time. There are so many things to do in Cuba we can’t wait to go back.
Hotels In Cuba and Accommodation In Cuba Options
Booking a hotel in Cuba is very limited, as there are only a few hotels listed on hotel booking website. We found Booking.com had the most options here are the available Havana hotels. We never stayed in a hotel in Cuba we mainly stayed in Casa Particulares with local Cuban families. Most Casa Particulares you cannot book online, we booked our Casa on arrival in Trinidad Cuba, Vinales, Varadero Cuba, and Havana. There are tons of government-approved Casa Particulares just look for the symbol above their door, knock and the owner will walk you through the house. Most Casas in Cuba was $20-30 a night for a private room with air conditioning and private bath.
If you prefer to book a Casa Particulares in advance there are several on Airbnb. Booking in advance also has the advantage of accommodation being prepaid. We booked our first 2 nights in Havana in advance on Airbnb. Those Cuban families with family members living outside of Cuba manage these Airbnb bookings since there is no Wifi in Cuba homes. If you message them on Airbnb you’ll communicate with a family member outside of Cuba, they then call up their family members in Cuba to tell them about your upcoming Airbnb stay.
Airbnb first-timers, if you sign up through my referral link you get $40 credit when you book your first trip! –>> sign up here!