It isn’t a surprise that Cuba has been found everywhere in media publications recently. After an unprecedented five decades, the US has tuned down its travel limitations for Americans in transit to Cuba, causing many Americans to ponder the question, “how can I travel to Cuba?”
To prepare for the upcoming rush of potential travellers, US airlines are now in all-and-all competition to solidify non-stop flights from the enchanting island from the US beginning around September 2016. But Americans have already started visiting in flocks, and this is only the beginning. And although it seems like a free-for-all, there are still some restrictions for US residents.
If you’ve already done some research and came upon countless articles; hopelessly doing their best to decode the government terminology giving light to specifically what these restrictions are. Possibly you found out that there are 12 types of travel, but can’t determine if your trip ends up in one of these classifications. You may have also heard that you can travel via Mexico, but are concerned about getting your passport stamped. We don’t hold you at fault. The info is skim at best and is pretty unclear.
We’re here to set things straight.
US to Cuba Travel Categories: What’s The Deal?
Unfortunately, USA travel to Cuba is not completely lifted. In its place they’ve transformed the procedure from a drawn-out bureaucratic annoyance to essentially an honor system. There are now 12 travel classifications wherein you can legally visit Cuba as an American. Whether you’re flying from the US to Cuba, or going through a gateway country, you must meet the requirements 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 compliance with the law, your entire trip should be spent doing one of these activities. Meaning that taking a trip over to Cuba and laying back with a mojito on a pristine beach is still not fully allowed for Americans. Yet, as a matter of fact, there are already tons of Americans travelling Cuba for exactly those reasons. Best of luck attempting to remove the mojito from their icy hands!
The bottom line is that the Cuba travel classifications are tremendously ambiguous, but seriously, have you seen the daunting list? It just about covers anything. It could be that doing ‘educational activities’ means you have to take water quality samples at various beaches, or maybe your ‘professional research’ involves taste-testing Cuban rum.
In any case, you’ll find a category that fits your needs. And without a doubt the crème-de-la-creme, the visa is completely self-licensed. There is undeniably no official solicitation, no paperwork and no authorization process needed. You merely choose the category that best fits your travel and then on your way you go. It sounds unlikely, but it’s honestly that easy to take a trip to Cuba as an American at this very moment!
These categories don’t include you?
Really? You’re telling me you’re not going to go to Cuba for “exportation, importation or transmission of information?” You’re going only to relish in the Cuban culture and explore a distinctively interesting destination? You’re in luck because you’re not alone. If flying from the US to Cuba on a self-issued-license doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, well, then you have a couple of other options.
Flying to Cuba From Mexico or Canada
Alternatively you could fly through a gateway country such as Mexico or Canada. Direct flights from the US are far and few in between, so odds are you’ll be arriving from another country anyway. Contingent on where you reside in the US, you can effortlessly book a flight to Cuba from Canada or Mexico. Once you go through the gateway country you forget about the US government as they have no jurisdiction in other countries airports.
Join a Person to Person Cuba Tour
Secondly, you can join a “person to person” tour agency that takes Americans to Cuba under the guise “educational activities.” If you’re ok with being on a tour this is a perfectly legal, although rather pricey way to visit Cuba.
Pick a Cuba Travel Category
Thirdly, you can pick a category that you feel comfortable with. Okay, that sounds a bit vague, but seeing as how flexible some of the categories are, it’s pretty simple. Sincerely, one of them is basically “support for the Cuban people.” What is the meaning of this? Certainly buying drinks helps sustain the economy… and consequently sustain the population. Right?!
We went as “journalists.” And while we kind of are, at no point in our whole travels did we ever have to tell anyone. The maximum we had to do was click “OK” on a pop-up explaining the 12 categories in Skyscanner when purchasing our flights on the web. No strings attached.
The categories are very broad so what I’m saying is don’t worry you won’t be taken to Cuban jail. Obama is down with the get down, so get the getting while the getting is good.
Does Cuba Stamp Your Passport?
We travelled there in 2013, immigration in Cuba knew it was illegal for Americans to go to Cuba. Rather than stamping my passport they stamped a sheet of paper, put it inside my passport for the duration of my stay and then took the paper back when I left the country. No hand prints, no fingerprints, no evidence.
Now that it’s legal for (some) Americans, it’s ok to get your passport stamped. When you leave Cuba, immigration will now prompt you with a question as whether or not you want your passport stamped. It’s your choice. 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 our Tweets, sweet Instagram pics and updates constantly while in Cuba.
What About Money?
What about money? Do you have any? Can I have some of yours? No? Okay.
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 feeat 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 look 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.
You may not need to apply for a visa before, but you still need a tourist card to enter Cuba. This will cost around $20-25 US depending on the exchange rate and will be purchased at the departure airport before you board the plane.
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! Check out our recently published book below for ALL the Cuba information you’d ever need!
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