Following a complicated few years involving devastating hurricanes, mysterious travel advisories, and somewhat ambiguous tourism regulations, many Americans are confused about how to visit Cuba—or if they legally can at all.
But contrary to popular perceptions, U.S. demand for travel to the Caribbean nation is steadily on the rise. Prominent cruise operators such as Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line, Azamara Club Cruises, and Carnival Cruise Line have upped their Cuba itineraries, U.S. airlines like JetBlue and United Airlines have increased their nonstop daily flight routes, and a number of luxury and boutique hotels have opened new properties (or undergone renovations) across lesser-visited parts of the island, from the beaches of Varadero to the colonial streets of Cienfuegos.
“Despite some of the confusion, it’s actually easier to go to Cuba now than it has been previously,” says Tom Popper, president of U.S.-based tour operator insightCuba.
While the Trump administration’s Cuba travel restrictions do mean that making the trip will require some extra preliminary planning for U.S. citizens, the Caribbean island nation is by no means closed off to them. Here’s the information you need to know before going to Cuba.
The spending regulations, explained
According to the administration’s current policy, “no American citizen, firm, green-card holder or person otherwise under U.S. jurisdiction” can carry out direct financial transactions with the 180 Cuban businesses—many of them hotels and luxury shops—on the U.S. Department of State’s restricted list. (According to the U.S. Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control, the policy’s intention is to prevent Cuba’s military from reaping the benefits of American tourist dollars.)
In addition to avoiding stays at “banned” hotels and spending money at military-owned businesses, U.S. travelers are expected to keep records of their travel activities for up to five years, should the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) have questions about the trip’s purpose. Because debit and credit cards associated with U.S. banks cannot be used in Cuba, most transactions will be in cash—but receipts or spending records could still be requested. Although it’s rare to be asked for this, the practice of documenting trip spendings is necessary nonetheless.
What are the categories of authorized travel?
There are 12 categories of travel to Cuba authorized by OFAC, including:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain authorized export transactions
When former president Obama first eased travel restrictions to Cuba, the move allowed leisure travelers to pursue self-led trips under the “people-to-people” educational activities category. OFAC’s updated regulations now prohibit self-led ventures under this license, which means that American citizens who want to pursue “people-to-people” trips—designed to encourage meaningful interactions between Cubans and foreign travelers—must now do so as part of an organized tour group led by a U.S.-based company. But individual Americans can still visit Cuba legally under any of the other 11 categories, the most popular of which is “support for the Cuban people.”
How to travel independently in Cuba
To adhere to the requirements for independent travel under “support for the Cuban people,” travelers must first declare the category (when prompted) while booking flights and lodging. As part of the license, travelers are also expected to prepare an itinerary outlining how their trip will fulfill the category’s terms and contribute to Cuba’s local economy. (This itinerary could be—but isn’t always—requested upon arrival to the country.)
The activities supported by this category include meeting with local business owners and manufacturers, visiting independent museums and galleries, partaking in cultural dance and music classes, and eating at locally owned restaurants and markets. (For specific recommendations and local resources, check out AFAR’s Cuba Travel Guide.)
Most individual travelers stay at casas particulares, which are private homes owned by Cuban families who rent out rooms to foreigners. This affordable, homestay-like experience can be booked through websites such as Airbnb, CubaCasa, and Booking.com.
“People-to-people” tour itineraries
Of course, U.S. travelers who wish to pursue “people-to-people” trips specifically can still do so with a number of U.S.-based tour companies. These tour operators offer group, private, and custom-curated trips focused on connecting travelers with Cuba’s local side. Here’s a taste of the adventures they offer:
GeoEx Adventure Travel
When you sign up for GeoEx’s “Cuba Insider” journey, the adventure company’s team of travel specialists work with you to create a custom itinerary tailored to your interests. The five- to 14-day journey (depending on your timeframe) can include a range of unique activities, among them special visits with Havana’s local artists to conservation-focused nature walks with tobacco farmers in the Viñales Valley. From $6,300 per person based on seven-day itinerary
This fascinating “people-to-people” expedition begins in the ever-lively Havana. You’ll wander the city center, visit Hemingway’s former home, and stop by a car workshop to learn about the local tradition of restoring vintage U.S. automobiles. The trip also takes travelers to the colonial cities of Cienfuegos and Trinidad, where cobblestone streets wind near lush mountains dotted with coffee plantations. Throughout the seven-day “Cuba: Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Havana” adventure, you’ll interact closely with farmers, artists, horticulturists, cooks, and Cubans from all walks of life. From $4,595
Cuba’s world-famous music and arts scene is one of its biggest attractions. On insightCuba’s “Jazz in Havana” tour, travelers will interact with some of the country’s leading jazz musicians, performance groups, and artisans. The immersive five-day trip focuses on Cuba’s capital, Havana, as well as the close-by coastal town of Matanzas, known for its poets, culture, and Afro-Cuban folklore. From $3,295
How to get a Cuban Tourist Card
Regardless of whether you travel to Cuba independently, with a tour group, or on a cruise, you’ll still need to organize a few important documents before you go.
The Cuban government requires that all travelers entering the country provide a valid passport and proof of travel insurance that covers medical emergencies and evacuation by air. In addition, all U.S. travelers—adults, children, and infants—must purchase a Cuban Tourist Card, which grants visitors a maximum stay of 30 days on the island. Tourist Cards are valid for 180 days after purchase, which means you will need to travel within six months of obtaining the document. It’s important to note that Cuban Tourist Cards are not Cuban visas, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
There are several ways to buy a Cuban Tourist Card: Many airlines with direct service to Cuba—among them United Airlines, JetBlue, American Airlines, Delta, and Southwest—offer Tourist Cards either online or at the gate; prices and purchase locations vary among carriers, so it’s important to check in advance.
Websites like Easy Tourist Card allow travelers to apply for and purchase Tourist Cards online with two-day international shipping. Those who plan to fly to Cuba directly from the United States will need to purchase a pink Tourist Card at a slightly pricier rate of $99, while those departing from—or connecting in—non-U.S. airports can purchase a green Tourist Card for $39, even with a U.S. passport.
“Cuba travel has always been a hot political topic, and you never know when the rules are going to change,” states Tom Popper of insightCuba. “I always tell people to go now—while you can.”
>> Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to Cuba