Yes, Americans Can Still Travel to Cuba. Here's Your Ultimate Guide to US Travel to Cuba, Including Visas, Licenses, Money, and More!
Recent restrictions put into place by the Trump administration have made traveling to Cuba as an American appear just as difficult as it was before Obama lifted the travel embargo. But as bewildering as traveling to Cuba might seem, as long as your travel economically supports the Cuban people it is completely legal. The hardest part is deciphering the array of rules and restrictions, so here's your complete guide to legally traveling to Cuba as an American!
U.S. travel to Cuba has been restricted since 1960, when the U.S. imposed a commercial, economic, and financial embargo on Cuba known as the Blockade. The important takeaway here is that the travel restrictions surrounding Cuba were (and are) something instituted and enforced by the U.S. government and not by the Cuban government. Americans are the only ones who haven't been able to visit Cuba - the island receives a huge number of foreign tourists every year.
Obama first eased the travel ban for Cuban Americans in 2009 and subsequently extended the eased regulations to all Americans in 2014. In 2017, Trump put new restrictions on travel to Cuba. While many think this means that Trump reversed Obama's policies and made travel to Cuba illegal, his restrictions actually reify Obama's vision for the economic impact of American travel to Cuba: a burgeoning class of entrepreneurs buoyed by American tourist dollars. Essentially, he just further codified the idea that American money is supposed to be going to the Cuban people and not the Cuban government.
Getting Your Cuban Tourist Card
Nearly all travelers visiting Cuba require a tourist card - even if they're visiting from countries everyone likes (like Canada). The only thing that sets an American tourist card apart is that it's more expensive and it's pink. Getting a tourist card might sound like a hurdle but you actually have to do almost no work - it's essentially just a fee you pay to visit Cuba. The actual card is supplied to you by your airline and simply paid for online or at the gate (different U.S. airlines have different processes - i.e. paying online ahead of time or at the airport - so be sure to check with the airline you're flying on). Regardless of what airline you fly on, a tourist card for U.S. citizens costs $50 and grants a 30-day stay.
Traveling to Cuba Using the "Support for the Cuban People" License
Technically Americans are still not allowed to visit Cuba purely for tourism's sake, meaning you can't show up at customs and say you went because you heard the beaches were good and the mojitos were cheap. Your travel must fall under one of the 12 federally approved licenses, which include:
Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
Professional research and professional meetings
Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
Support for the Cuban people
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.
The license I traveled to Cuba under - and that almost all independent travel falls under - is the "support for the Cuban people" license. You don't have to apply for this license or submit anything ahead of time, you simply need to self declare it. However, you will be asked which license you're traveling under fairly frequently, at the very least when booking your flights, lodging, completing your tourist card, and occasionally at customs. Know which license you're traveling under and use it consistently.
Traveling to Cuba under the support for the Cuban people license means you'll do just that - support the Cuban people. For the U.S. government that technically means you need to have an itinerary consisting of activities that "enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba.” It might sound a little overwhelming - like you're promising to take down communism on your vacation - but you're really just promising not to give money to the Cuban government and to give it to the Cuban people instead.
Logistically, this rule will primarily impact where you stay. Most hotels, for example, are owned by the government and are therefore off-limits to Americans. You'll need to book at either a private hotel (and research carefully here because many hotels that might appear private are actually government owned) or stay at what are called casas particulares. I highly recommend the latter, especially because you can book and pay for many casas particulares through Airbnb. Additionally, Airbnb is explicitly approved by the U.S. government for the "Support for the Cuban people" license so you never have to worry whether your lodging meets the legal requirements. Here's a list of explicitly banned entities, but as a general rule if you stick with local and private vs. government owned you are fine.
You do technically also have to engage in cultural activities and/or activities that support the budding class of Cuban entrepreneurs. This, frankly, is something you should be doing regardless of the government regulation. Cuba is in the midst of an economic revolution and it's thrilling to be at the heart of it. Paladars, or "privately-owned" restaurants for example, have only hit the culinary scene since 2010 when Raul Castro reformed regulations. If you think eating at a hot new restaurant is fun, eating at a restaurant that legally wasn't even allowed to exist until a few years ago is way better. And in a country where it's only been legal to buy or sell real estate for the past seven years, it's incredible to have a drink with your Airbnb host and hear his business plans for buying another house and converting it into a bigger B&B. Cubans are some of the most vivacious, tenacious, and entrepreneurial people you'll ever meet, so spend time getting to know them and your itinerary will be totally legal (and way more awesome).
As a note: you are required to have a copy of your itinerary when you travel and to keep records of your trip for five years. Although I was never asked for mine and have never heard of anybody being asked for theirs, you'll want to have everything printed out and prepared just in case.
About that Pesky Cuba Travel Advisory
Following some mysterious incidents involving U.S. Embassy personnel that read like a Cold War-era spy movie, the U.S. government has issued a Level 3 security warning to U.S. citizens urging them to reconsider travel. I don't want to downplay what happened to those embassy employees, but it is important to note that even if carried out by the Cuban government, these attacks were specifically targeted at U.S. government employees and not tourists. Over 600,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2017 without harm and Cuba was named the Safest Country for Tourism at Madrid's 2018 International Tourism Fair. Anecdotally, I never encountered any issues or felt unsafe as an American in Cuba.
U.S. citizens are required to have local medical insurance. Most U.S. airlines include the price of insurance in your ticket, but if not you can simply buy it online through a travel medical insurance company before your trip.
U.S. Money in Cuba
You can not - I repeat can NOT - use your U.S. credit, debit, or ATM cards in Cuba. Occasionally, you will see things about how hotels or other places accept credit cards. This does NOT include you if you're an American! You must bring enough cash with you to cover the entirety of your trip.
Additionally, while all currencies have a 3 percent exchange fee, U.S. currency gets hit with an additional 10 percent tax. This means that to get the best bang for your buck you'll want to exchange your U.S. currency for Euros or Canadian dollars in the U.S. and then convert your Euros/Canadian dollars to Cuban currency (CUC) when you arrive in Cuba. Note that you'll need your passport to exchange money and that you're limited to a withdrawal of €400 per passport. Also note that you will not be able to convert your CUC back into Euros, Canadian dollars, or U.S. currency, either in Cuba or once back in the U.S., so you might want to only take out money as you need it.
I know it's uncouth to talk about money, but I exchanged $1500 USD for Euros before traveling to Cuba for a week and ended up with about $300 USD leftover when all was said and done. That does not include the price of my accommodations, which were all booked and paid for online ahead of time. Obviously, the amount of money you'll require will depend on how you travel but I highly recommend taking way more than you think you will need so you don't have to stress. In hindsight, even though we didn't need it, I wish we had brought more just so we could have stressed a little less (and had a few more mojitos).
Praise be to Obama for lifting restrictions and monetary limits on importing Cuban goods. As long as they're for personal use, imported Cuban goods like cigars, rum, and coffee are subject to the same duty limitations as anywhere else. That means you can bring back about 100 cigars per person and more rum than Captain Jack Sparrow could ever drink.
This is not specific to Americans, but the lack of high-quality, accessible internet is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of traveling to Cuba. Your phone's data will not work even if you have an international plan and WiFi is only available for a fee in very limited locations. Print out everything you think you might need ahead of time, including reservation information, directions, handy blog posts, restaurant recommendations, etc.