For years I had dreamed of traveling to Cuba but my American passport didn’t make it easy. Cuba has been closed to U.S. citizens since the 1960’s, but travel restrictions were lessened in 2015 under the Obama Administration (thanks Obama!).
In February 2019 I made my dream a reality and traveled to Cuba. I received more questions about traveling to Cuba as an American than nearly any other country I’ve visited. Therefore I’m covering questions I was asked and questions I had of my own before traveling to Cuba as a U.S. citizen.
Many people asked how I was able to go since it was illegal or how I was going with the travel ban, and these questions would occasionally have me worriedly consulting Google to make sure I hadn’t missed something crucial! I’ve also learned the hard way not to always trust Google results (ie: I trusted the first page of Google and it led me astray with Chinese visa information). But you are an American and it is your dream to travel to Cuba, fear not, you can make your dream a reality.
Are you legally allowed to travel to Cuba as an American?
Yes! Technically, you are not legally allowed to travel as a “tourist” but there are legal ways around this. Keep reading.
How do I get to Cuba? Do I need to fly from another country outside of the U.S.?
You can fly to Cuba directly from the United States. There are many flights out of Miami and other U.S. cities through several airlines. You can also fly through other countries such as Mexico (this was a previous workaround to the travel limitations) but that is no longer necessary.
I flew with American Airlines to Havana, Cuba directly from Miami (I purchased a roundtrip from Seattle to Havana with layovers in Miami). I found a roundtrip flight for $434 for a 10 day trip in February 2019, which I booked in January 2019 (just over a month from my departure date).
Do I need a visa to visit Cuba? What kind of visa do I need to travel to Cuba as an American?
There are twelve reasons to obtain a visa as a U.S. citizen to visit Cuba. The best option for the average American traveling without a tour group is the “Support the Cuban People” option. This is the visa I chose and successfully traveled to and from Cuba.
Do you need to take a tour or have a guide to visit Cuba as an American?
No! You are not required to be on a tour or have a guide to visit Cuba. You can travel independently with the “Support the Cuban People” visa. I traveled with this visa while traveling on my own with a friend (another American) without a tour group or guide.
If you are traveling with a tour group, you will want to select “People to People” – but refer to your guide for clarification.
What does the “Support the Cuban People” visa mean?
You are visiting Cuba to support the Cuban people, as opposed to supporting Cuba’s communist government. This means you should be spending your money directly with Cuban people as opposed to any government run organizations.
How do I get my Cuban visa as an American?
You can get your visa online or at several U.S. airports. The visa process and cost varies slightly by airline. It ranges from $50 to $100.
When flying with American Airlines, I had the option to purchase my visa online for $85 through Cuba Visa Services, which was a fairly easy process. American Airlines sent me a direct link in an email to get a Visa Card. The first time I tried to purchase it online, the site was not working and kept coming up with an error message. I tried again a few days later and it went through without a problem.
The application does not require a lot of information and is quick to fill out. It only has 5 questions:
- Type of visa you want = “Support the Cuban People” out of the drop down menu
- Information regarding your flight = Date of flight and booking reservation number
- Province you will visit in Cuba = Although I was visiting multiple, I chose “Havana” as it was the first province I was visiting)
- Amount of visas = 1, unless the reservation is booked for multiple people, each person will need a visa
Your visa will arrive in the mail within a week. If your flight is sooner than a week then you are better off getting it at the airport, since the rushed shipping fee would exceed the cost of getting it at the airport.
The alternative option with American Airlines is to buy your visa at the airport for $100. I did not do this but it appeared you could do this right at a little “Cuba Ready” kiosk your gate (that is where my visa was checked before I boarded my flight to Cuba in Miami).
You also need to have travel insurance, although I was never asked for proof of mine, but I purchased it for an additional $32 directly with my ticket (the cost will depend on the length of stay you are in Cuba). In the past when I travel, I have used World Nomads for travel insurance, which I would also recommend.
How long can I stay in Cuba as an American?
With the “Support the Cuban People” visa, you are allowed to stay a maximum of 30 days – I traveled around Cuba for 10 days but could have easily spent longer.
Stay tuned for another blog on my recommended 10 day travel itinerary around Cuba but here is my 10 day/9 night trip at a glance:
- Havana – 2 nights
- Viñales – 2 nights
- Trindad – 2 nights
- Varadero – 2 nights
- Havana – 1 night
Money in Cuba requires more planning than your typical travel experience. Keep reading for more information.
Can I use my American credit or debit card in Cuba?
No. Even if you have a travel friendly credit or debit card, you will NOT be able to use it in Cuba. This means all the money you need/want to spend in Cuba you need to carry in as cash and convert it to Cuban currency while on Cuban soil.
U.S. dollars are taxed at 10% so it is best to bring in another currency, like Canadian dollars, Euros, or British pounds (check the conversion rate at your time of travel – I went with Canadian dollars). You can order this foreign currency from your bank in advance, make sure you allow at least a few business days before your flight to receive your foreign currency.
When you arrive at the airport in Havana, exchange your money over to CUC at the currency exchange, which is outside of arrivals.
Is there really a separate currency for tourists?
Yes, there are two separate currencies, one for tourists and one for Cubans. Cuban Convertible Peso, referred to as CUC (pronounced coo-k) is the tourist currency and Cuban Peso Nacional, CUP (pronounced coo-p) is the local currency. 1 CUC is steady at $1 USD. 1 CUC is worth about 24 CUP. You will typically see prices in CUC, unless you are somewhere local (which I recommend trying, just divide the price by 24 and pay that in CUC). You will only ever be given CUC as a tourist so you won’t have to worry about CUP.
How much money should I bring to Cuba?
This honestly depends on your spending habits and budget. You should expect to spend less money than you would in Cuba in comparison to the United States.
I budgeted $100 a day but brought $120 to be on the safe side. This is more than I usually spend when traveling (when I was traveling around the world full time in 2017 I travelled on roughly $50 a day, including accommodation) but budgeted to spend a little more on this trip. I ended up only spending an average of $69 a day (including transportation, food, drinks, activities and a few souvenirs – not including accommodations).
Since I was spending 10 days in Cuba, I exchanged $1200 USD to $1575 CAD (Canadian dollars) and received $1145.50 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). I ended up exchanging $460 CUC back at the airport before I departed.
I did not need to bring that much money (especially with my accommodations previously booked through Airbnb, more on that in the next section). I ended up exchanging a lot of CUC back (I was traveling to London after Cuba so I changed them to British pounds). I lost a small chunk of money through all the conversions I had to do as well (from US to Canadian to CUC to British Pounds and then finally back to US), so in hindsight I wouldn’t have brought as much cash, but I figured it would be better to be safe than sorry in case of any emergencies.
I read about long lines to exchange money, but didn’t experience this when arriving in Cuba. I did however, experience long wait times (the lines weren’t long but the service was slow) to get money changed back before my departure. Make sure to account for the possibility of this when returning to the airport to leave Cuba.
Is Cuba cheap?
For the most part, yes. Of course cheap is relative but it is cheaper than the United States. CUC is directly tied to the amount of USD so it is easy to convert (1 CUC is 1 USD).
The biggest price difference I noticed in Cuba was how cheap alcohol is.
- Mojitos, daiquiris, and other cocktails start around 1.50 CUC and average 2-3 CUC, the most expensive ones you will find will be 5-6 CUC at fancy hotels or tourist traps
- Fifth of rum can be as cheap as 4 CUC (if you want to make your own drinks)
Airbnb private rooms in Casa Particulares were also very affordable. I’ve included the average prices of Airbnbs in USD because that is the currency I purchased it in. The cost below is for two people per night in a private room with a private bathroom. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, get $40 off your first Airbnb with my referral link.
- Havana average = $48 a night/$22 a person > Where I stayed, $34 per night and where I stayed, $30 per night
- Viñales average = $20 a night/$10 a person > Where I stayed, $20 per night
- Trinidad average = $27 a night/$13.50 a person > Where I stayed, $26 per night
- Varadero = $47 a night/$23.50 a person > Where I stayed, $40 per night
As a whole, food is relatively cheaper in Cuba than in the US, although you can find very cheap or more expensive meals depending on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for cheaper food, look for a local place that has prices in CUP, as they are usually significantly lower than places geared to tourists. Make sure they convert the price in CUC and also give you CUC back in change.
- The average full Cuban breakfast is 5 CUC
- The average lunch/dinner at a Casa particular is 10 CUC
Where can I stay legally?
I highly recommend staying in casa particulares (private homestay), which I ended up booking through Airbnb. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, get $40 off your first Airbnb with my referral link. I chose to book Airbnbs so that I didn’t have to worry about having enough cash to pay for my accommodation while in Cuba and so I could select my room. They were also very affordable!
You can find links to the Airbnbs I stayed at above (in the “Is Cuba cheap?” section).
You book your Airbnb for Cuba just as you would anywhere else, but the only difference I came across was inputting my visa type (“Support the Cuban People”) and a little more personal information before I could click “Reserve.”
Several hotels in Cuba are government run, making them illegal to stay in as Americans visiting on the “Support the Cuban People” visa because you are there to support the people, not the government. Find the list of hotels you can’t stay at here.
We visited the rooftop pool bar at Hotel Saratoga at sunset for drinks and met an American who was staying there (the hotel is not on the restricted list). So if you are looking to splurge, Hotel Saratoga was a great looking option in Havana.
Is there WiFi in Cuba?
Yes, but WiFi is government controlled and limited. The internet speeds are significantly slower than what you are used to in the United States. It is only accessible in certain designated spots.
Where do I find Wifi?
WiFi zones in Cuba are located in certain public parks, plazas, “Ciber Cafes,” and some hotels. To get on WiFi, you have to purchase WiFi card, which should cost 1 CUC for 1 hour. You will typically find someone selling the cards within the designated areas. A WiFi card is only good for one device at a time. Nicer hotels will offer you a WiFi card for the duration of your stay as their “Free WiFi” and that username/password combination will work wherever the hotel has a WiFi connection set up and at all other public WiFi spots. This special login can also typically be shared with multiple devices. When we went to Hotel Saratoga’s rooftop bar, we met an American who shared his code with us from the hotel and were able to use it to access WiFi.
How do I access WiFi?
Once you have a WiFi card secured, on your device select the WiFi network “WIFI_ETECSA” and a login screen will pop up. It may take several times for the connection to go through and the login screen to pop up (I typically got an error message that I was unable to connect the first few times I would try), but you have to be patient and keep trying. Once you are on the login page, you can choose to view it in Spanish or English. Input the username “usario” and password “contrasena” information from your WiFi card.
Does the WiFi work?
Yes, but not at the speed you are likely used to. If you expect to have a reliable, fast, internet connection when you travel to Cuba and plan to go about your work/online time as you would at home, you will be disappointed. I planned on being relatively off the grid – no Instagram posts (gasp!) or emails while I was in Cuba. I did get on WiFi a few times to update my family and friends that I was alive and well and having a wonderful time in Cuba. Sending and receiving photos was slow, sending and receiving videos was nearly impossible. Prepare ahead of time to be mostly offline during your stay and enjoy your time being disconnected – it will save you from a lot of frustration.
WiFi Time Saving Tip
To save time from typing in the long digits of your internet card over and over (it kicks you off if you are inactive), type both lines (“usario” login and “contrasena” password) on the same line of text with a space in between the two number sets in Notes on your phone (example: 1810225026040 246414922221). Copy the whole line into the login, then highlight and copy the password numbers from the login box and erase them from the login. Paste the password into the password box. Hit the accept (“Aceptar”) button and wait to be connected to WiFi. There will be a timer showing you how much time you have left in your WiFi card.
How do I travel around Cuba?
Taxi Colectivos: The easiest way is through “taxis colectivos” (shared taxis). Your host will be able to call one for you the night before your journey. They are not super cheap, but we found them to be relatively easy to book and get around with, as they normally offer door to door service. Depending on your route, they typically only leave at 8-8:30am. Below are the costs of the routes I took with a taxi colectivo:
- Havana to Viñales = 25 CUC a person, 8:15am pick up in a shared “taxi” for four people total, roughly 3.5 hours from door to door, one short stop at rest stop
- Viñales to Trinidad = 40 CUC a person, 8:30am pick up in an old school mini bus that fit 10 people, roughly 6.5 hours, transfer to bus that fit roughly 33 people for 1.5 hours = 8 hours total, one stop to change vehicles on the side of the highway near Havana and one stop at a rest stop
- Trinidad to Varadero = 30 CUC a person, 8:30am pick up in a shared taxi for four people total, roughly 5 hours door to door, one stop at a rest stop
- Varadero to Havana = 20 CUC a person, (flexible departure times for this route as it is shorter and popular among tourists), 11:30am pick up in a modern mini bus that fit 10 people, roughly 2 hours door to door
Buses: Buses are the cheapest but typically more time consuming. We did not book buses in advance of our trip (and thankfully we didn’t because our plans changed while we were in Cuba) but you can apparently book online with ViaAzul (https://www.viazul.com/), or purchase tickets at the ViaAzul bus stations for a cheaper price. As a warning, bus tickets sell out in advance. We tried to take a bus from Varadero to Havana, but when we went to the station the day before our departure, we were told all buses to Havana were fully booked for the next three days (which didn’t work for us since we flew out of Havana in two days).
Whenever we asked our hosts about buses they typically deferred us to a taxi colectivo because of how much longer it would take (and I assume they might get some kind of commission with their driver or just like to help their friends out). Since we were limited on time and didn’t typically have the means (WiFi) to research buses, we opted for the shared taxis anyway. Technically we ended up on a bus part of the way from Viñales to Trinidad, but it wasn’t through a bus company.
Rental car: It is also possible rent a car, which is the most expensive option (I’ve read that a car can be around $85 a day with insurance). It does seem like the most flexible option if you have the budget for it and don’t mind driving long distances if you plan to travel around the country. I have also heard that you have to book a car at least a few weeks in advance, as they sell out quickly and can be hard to secure. I did not rent a car so I can’t share any personal experiences or recommendations.
Is Cuba safe?
In short, yes.
Safety is always relative, I personally felt safe in Cuba. Havana is a big city so follow the same safety measures you would in any other big city and always trust your gut.
Petty theft can happen anywhere. Unfortunately, my friend’s iPhone 8 was pick pocketed out of her purse at a night club (the popular and fun Disco Ayala in the caves in Trinidad on a Saturday night). Aim to avoid this by not bringing your valuables to night clubs.
As a woman in Cuba, you will be catcalled very frequently with all kind of Spanish words called out to you as well as in English, normally accompanied by kissing sounds and the frequent marriage proposal. I knew I would encounter this by traveling to Cuba where there is a strong “machismo” culture. The advice I read was the best way to react to it is just to ignore it and that proved to be true. I never felt unsafe or threatened by this. I experienced a range of gut reactions – at times it can be creepy, humorous, annoying, flattering, or a mix of all of the above. Apparently if you are traveling with a male, the catcalls will not be as frequent as Cuban men consider you “taken.”
Are Cubans friendly (and friendly to Americans)?
Yes! Of course there are friendly and unfriendly people in every country. But as a whole I found Cubans to be very friendly to me as a traveler and as an American. When asked where I was from, I never had a mean response to being an American. Many Cubans I met would share about family members they have in the U.S. (typically in Miami) and about their favorite baseball teams.
In my personal observations, I found the men to be friendlier to me than the women. There were a handful of times when my friend (also a woman) and I tried to ask questions (in Spanish) we were blatantly ignored by Cuban women who pretended they couldn’t see or hear us.
Whenever I was taking photos of the streets or surroundings, when Cubans would notice, they would typically stop what they were doing to smile or pose and sometimes go out of their way to be in photos. This is different to what I’ve experienced in several countries around the world, where locals try to avoid being in photos.
What should I pack for Cuba?
Stay tuned for my Cuba in a carry-on pack list blog post! But to share a few less obvious things I wouldn’t have initially thought of that I’m glad I packed (or wished that I had) – bug spray, anti-itch cream (when you forget to use bug spray), a raincoat, and a portable charger.
Have any more questions about traveling to Cuba as an American in 2019?
Leave a comment below with your question and I will do my best to answer! I might even add it to this blog post 🙂