Half of my heart is in Havana. Oh na na. No, seriously. I think half of my soul stayed in Havana this spring break as I visited this magnificently mysterious island. Let me tell you all you need to know to make the best of your visit, including what I know about restrictions to American citizens and other truths.
(Disclaimer: as of June 5, 2019- these restrictions and liberties can change at any time. Please check with your airline or cruise line before making plans).
Myth: American Citizens Cannot Visit Cuba
WRONG. (As of this day) American Citizens can visit Cuba at any time. There are just some restrictions that must be considered when visiting the island.
You cannot visit as a “tourist”. You must fall under one of one of 11 travel categories in order to enter. You must obtain a visa under this category. Visas can be purchased at the airport (before departure) or they will be provided by your cruise ship. Visas are about $80. You can get more information for the US department of State here .
So here’s the deal. They make this wording of getting a visa and not being allowed to be a tourist pretty serious. But the truth is that loopholes still exist. Yes, you do need a visa, and yes, they don’t provide tourist visas, but there are ways around it (and they know about it). For the record, This only applies to US Citizens.
When you plan to travel to Cuba, you must fall under one of these categories:
Humanitarian projects or to provide support to the Cuban people
Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
Educational activities by persons at academic institutions
Public performance, clinics, workshops, athletic or other competitions and exhibitions
Authorization to provide travel services, carrier services and remittance forwarding services
Activities of private foundations, research or educational institutes
Exportation of certain Internet-based services )
Please note that due to recent US restrictions, the “people to people” category is no longer accepted. BUT, don’t get discourage, you can still visit Cuba under “humanitarian and support to the people of Cuba” or any of the other options ***Please be advised that these categories are self-assigned, and you can choose the most appropriate one. For your (law-abiding) peace of mind, you should select a category that best describes your intention for travel. There are other 11 categories that might fit your trip…don’t get discouraged!! ***
See, most of the big businesses and restaurants in Cuba are owned by the government. The American government doesn’t want us to support their government, so Americans (that just want to vacation) are only allowed to support the people. Before the new sanctions, if you travel to Cuba by cruise and stay for a day or two, you needed to have an excursion scheduled with a local company that abides by these rules (most tour companies do). Now, the only way to enter is by air. If you fly into Cuba, you are not allowed (as an American Citizen) to stay in a (most) hotel. - Loophole? Stay at an Airbnb. There are plenty of Airbnb homes available to chose from. This also shows “support for the Cuban people” —one of the categories— Don’t be afraid to do this. Just check the reviews and make sure it’s a verified home.
MYTH: You Can Use U.S. Dollars in Cuba
Well….not really. Most businesses won’t accept the U.S. dollar because most businesses are government owned. Only a handful of private business will reluctantly accept your American money. Make sure to exchange your dollars at the port or airport. You will need your passport to do so. You can also exchange money at some hotels in town. Make sure to carry cash. Cuban cash. There are two types of currency. Cuban Convertible money CUCs which are the Cuban currency just for visitors (they have monuments on the bills), or the Cuban Pesos CUP’s which you can recognize by the faces on the bills. The whole time I was there I didn’t see any CUPs. They are only used by the people of Cuba and never by a foreigner. Also, no matter what you’ve heard before, American credit cards do NOT work in Cuba. Don’t even take it.
Myth: You Must Keep All Your Receipts For Customs Purposes
While this might be an American government requirement, the truth is that this rule is impossible to follow. See, NOBODY in the entire island will give you a receipt, and they will look at you like you are an martian when you ask for one. The rule comes from a regulation that states you cannot purchase more than $5,000 in merchandise. Well, Customs is just gonna have to trust you, because it’s literally mission impossible to get a receipt. I asked for one at a small shop, and after very stern looks from the attendant, she literally ripped a piece of paper and hand wrote the amount of my souvenir on it and handed it to me. Well, I guess that counts?
MYTH: You Can Bring Back All the Cuban Cigars
Don’t even try. As of right now, American citizens are restricted to 100 cigars per adult. Obviously, you can pack more than that but you’ll risk getting caught by customs in the US, and that’s not a pleasant experience. Customs WILL ask you if you are carrying cigars or alcohol. The restriction on Cuban alcohol is 1 liter per person. If you get lucky, the customs agent will just say hello and hand your passport back to you without any questions, but that doesn’t always happen. Make sure to follow this rule. I mean, if you need more cigars, just plan another trip and bring more!
MYTH: You Can Go Anywhere and Do Anything You Want Without Restriction
Well, this one is tricky. This is how it (was) when you go on a cruise, whether it’s a one or two day at shore. You go through Cuban immigration ONCE. You present your visa and passport. They stamp your passport. They probably won’t ask you any questions, and you are free to go. You must have an excursion scheduled to start, and honestly, this is probably the best and fastest way to start learning your way around the island.
Like I said before, most Cubans are not allowed to own their own business. Most businesses are government owned. So you won’t find the big souvenir stores ANYWHERE. If you want a souvenir, you must get it at an obviously privately owned store people open out of their garages or homes.
ALL items will be handmade- mostly by the person selling them. There’s no “made in China” merchandise here folks! These people are talented and crafty. Make sure to take home a beautiful hand made souvenir. You are free to purchase anything from these kind of businesses. However, they will tell you that you are NOT allowed to eat at any restaurant that doesn’t have the word “Paladar” in it.
Paladars are privately owned restaurant that cater to visitors. Most restaurants in the touristic areas are Paladars so you shouldn’t worry about it. Remember, this is a US government rule, not a Cuban rule. You are also not allowed to stay at any hotel that is owned by the government (which are basically ALL of them), or do any business with a government owned business. It can be tricky to tell what is what.
One thing is true. Once you go through the immigration process, and you are done with your tour, you are free to wander the city all by yourself. You can hire a guide or just roam the streets on your own. The tour guides will take you anywhere and will tell you what businesses are appropriate. But honestly, remember… no one will give you a receipt as proof of purchase or to prove where you’ve been, so…
Bottom line, Cuban people are amazing. They are warm and friendly and they want your business so they will treat you with respect. Don’t get discouraged by things you hear from the news, despite it being such a shame. The reality is far different from the propaganda. Yes, there are MANY restrictions, but there are also loopholes that will allow you to enjoy your visit to this mysterious country. For the record, the restrictions are implemented by the US and not the Cuban government. They advise you keep your travel affidavit for about 5 years as proof. Once you are in the island, let’s just say no one will really check on you. I do recommend it’s always best to be truthful on any official documents you fill out and process. Just in case.
***Check out our other travel tips and anecdotes in Havana coming soon!*** LOTS of exclusive pictures included*** Subscribe to our blog for up to date information and news.
Safe travels. Always,