Everything Americans Need to Know Before Traveling to Cuba

What do the Trump administration’s new sanctions mean for U.S. citizens interested in visiting the island? Here are the roadblocks that American travelers to Cuba should prepare for—and the resources to handle them.

Everything Americans Need to Know Before Traveling to Cuba

Trinidad is a town in central Cuba known for its colonial-style buildings and cobblestone streets.

Photo by rphstock/Shutterstock

Following a complicated few years involving devastating hurricanes, travel advisories, and continually changing trade and tourism regulations, many Americans are confused about how to visit Cuba—or if they can legally do so at all.

In October 2019, the Trump administration announced a ban on commercial flights from the United States to cities in Cuba except for Havana, which went into effect on December 10, 2019. The new policy prohibits U.S. airlines from flying into Cuban destinations such as Varadero, a popular beach resort town in the Matanzas province about 90 miles east Havana; Cienfuegos, a colonial city on the central southern coast; and Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city, known for its distinctive Afro-Cuban cultural influences. The other six Cuban destinations with international airports affected by the restrictions are Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Holguín, Manzanillo, and Santa Clara.

More recently, the Trump administration announced further limitations on air travel to Cuba, introducing a ban on charter flights to the island that similarly prohibits service to cities beyond Havana. In a statement released by the State Department on January 10, 2020, the administration said that charter operators would have 60 days to wind down their flights to the nine aforementioned cities in Cuba beyond the capital. Additionally, the State Department said that it will enforce “an appropriate cap” on the number of charter flights to Havana’s Jose Martí International Airport, although specifics about this part of the regulations were not outlined in detail.

The new restrictions follow a series of heightened Cuba sanctions imposed last year as part of what national security advisor John Bolton described in April as an effort to “help steer American dollars away from the Cuban regime.”

In June, the administration announced sanctions eliminating one of the most common visa categories under which U.S. citizens planned legal visits to Cuba: the cultural group trips known as “people-to-people” travel. That wave of restrictions also denied licenses for cruise lines, private yachts, and private jets to visit the island nation, essentially banning U.S.-Cuba cruises, which started to operate during the Obama administration (due to the expanded categories of permitted travel to the country) and quickly became a popular way for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba.

While the Trump administration’s current Cuba travel restrictions do mean that making the trip will require some extra preliminary planning for U.S. citizens, the Caribbean island nation is still not completely closed off. According to Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, which organizes curated cultural group trips to Cuba, there remain numerous ways to visit the country legally, and as of January 2020, commercial and charter flights from the United States to Cuba are still permitted to serve the capital, Havana.

For U.S. citizens interested in planning a trip to Cuba, here’s what to know before you go.

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?

While “people-to-people” travel is no longer a permitted license for U.S.-Cuba travel, there are currently 11 categories 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
  • 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 all ventures under this license, which means that American citizens who want to visit Cuba legally must do so under one of the other 11 categories, the most popular of which is “support for the Cuban people.”

What the “support for the Cuban people” license entails

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.

Can you still travel to Cuba with organized tour operators?

Prior to June 5, U.S. travelers who wished to pursue “people-to-people” trips to Cuba could do so with a number of U.S.-based tour companies that focused on connecting travelers with the country’s local side. The Trump administration’s tightened sanctions on travel to Cuba prohibit these types of trips entirely. However, according to Tom Popper, president of U.S.-based tour operator insightCuba, his company plans to update its tours to comply with the “support for the Cuban people” license (instead of following guidelines for the “people-to-people” category as had previously been done). Other tour providers that offer “people-to-people” trips, such as Classic Journeys and GeoEx Adventure Travel, have similarly transitioned their program itineraries in order to offer legal trips to Cuba that comply with the regulations.

How to get a Cuban Tourist Card

Regardless of the license under which you travel to Cuba, 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.

Cuban Tourist Cards are not Cuban visas, though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. 

Cuban Tourist Cards are not Cuban visas, though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

Courtesy of Easy Tourist Card

There are several ways to buy a Cuban Tourist Card: Many U.S. airlines with direct service to Havana—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 Havana directly from the United States will need to purchase a pink Tourist Card at a slightly pricier rate of $99, while those departing from non-U.S. airports can purchase a green Tourist Card for $39, even with a U.S. passport.

“U.S. travelers should note that travel to Cuba has been regulated since 1963 and has changed under each presidential administration since that time,” states Tom Popper of insightCuba. “Cuba travel has always been a hot political topic, and you never know when the rules are going to change. I always tell people to go now—while you can.”

This article was originally published on December 18, 2018. It was updated on January 14, 2020, to include current information.

>> Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Cuba

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