What you need to know to (successfully) use your phone in Cuba
Yes, Cuba is “frozen in time,” as almost every travel piece ever written about the country has noted, but what’s more interesting as a traveler is how much we have changed—and how quickly. The first and last thing many of us see every day is the warm glow of a screen, and this habit only grows on new soil, where our phones can unlock a global network of resources and opportunities to share our new experiences.
As you’ve probably heard, Cuba is a nearly clean break from that. The government maintains a narrow digital channel through which almost everything—everything legal, at least—enters the country. Keeping tabs on modern life takes either lots of effort or lots of money.
Travelers with Verizon coverage have the easiest access. The company’s pay-as-you-go plan is $2.05/megabyte. To put that in context: Just opening this page, you probably used about half a megabyte. You just spent a dollar.
Additionally, with Verizon and T-Mobile—or with apps like Skype or imo—you can make free phone calls over Wi-Fi—once you’ve found Wi-Fi.
Many high-end hotels, such as the Saratoga or Hotel Nacional, sell expensive Wi-Fi access, which is protected behind a firewall. This will cost you around $10/hour but might be worth the convenience.
If you want more frequent, and cheaper, access around Havana, it gets tricky. You’ll need to purchase government-issued ETECSA tickets, which look a bit like Lotto Scratchers. Locals rely on these. They are generally sold for 2 Cuban dollars (US $2) at Internet coffee shops, some hotels, and various public booths marked with telephone icons Except when they’re not. Often vendors simply run out, occasionally for months at a time, in which case enterprising civilians who’ve scooped them up sell the hot passes at a premium.
With these tickets, you can log on to almost any open Wi-Fi network. You can find these at cheaper to mid-range hotels. You’ll know if you’ve found one because a small crowd will have gathered, faces glued to phones, around the perimeter of the building that hosts the router. You’ll also know because when you click on the network name, a government pop-up will prompt you to enter a user name and password. Both of these numeric items can be found on your ticket. The one-time-use codes—which are, more sad news, 24-digits long—award you a continuous hour of Internet access.
Once you’re logged on, Wi-Fi service will be janky at best. As it goes in Communist Cuba, the government monitors it and keeps it slow. Just get used to not watching video for the duration of your stay (or download your favorite shows before you go). Most likely, the connection will be good enough to send texts, post to Instagram, and Google Map your destinations. This last part is key. While the Internet service in Cuba is remarkably bad, Google Maps is remarkably solid. It can run offline, provided you have Location Services turned on. Search an A-to-B route while you have Wi-Fi, and that little blue dot will guide the way even after your time is up. Remember to make screenshots of addresses often so you can zoom in and out on the map and share where you want to go with taxi drivers.
Of course, the alternative to all of this madness is much simpler: Leave your phone in your suitcase—or at home all together. Just bring a map, a printed list with addresses, a camera, and wander. The people in Cuba are generally friendly and willing to offer help if you need it. Without prompting, they’ll wave and say hello. They might also yell happy holidays, which is probably a gentle way of throwing shade, too. The point is, yes, you’ll be temporarily out of touch with loved ones and the greater world, but you’ll also be totally in touch with a culture exploding with life. And that’s a travel experience that’s hard to come by these days.