Cuba is the undisputed hottest travel destination of 2018. So how do you get there?
Currently Royal Caribbean has the market cornered on spectacular Cuba cruises. They’ve diverted ships from other destinations like Mexico to direct more traffic to Cuba. This FAQ is designed to highlight the travel requirements for US travelers and international travelers sailing to Cuba out of a US port who are subject to the exact same restrictions as US travelers.
Can I really go to Cuba? I thought that was off limits again.
Yes, you can really go to Cuba. You can even still go on your own but cruising there through a permitted cruise line has to be the easiest way to do it. Recent regulations are clear though- you are not allowed to frequent businesses owned, operated, or supporting the Cuban government, military, or intelligence agencies. We’ll get in to that later. There are 180 businesses on the list, most of the ones you would encounter are hotels.
Is Cuba Safe?
Yep. Marsec level 1 just like Nassau or Miami or Oslo.
Cuba has relatively little crime, especially compared to the US. It’s unheard of for a tourist to be the victim of an armed robbery, rape, or murder. Foreigners are considered untouchable and committing a crime of any kind can carry very serious sentences in Cuba so major crime is rare.
The most common crimes to be aware of are pick pocketing- don’t carry too much cash, use a secure purse or wallet, don’t make it EASY to grab your cash and you’ll be fine.
Don’t get drunk alone. Unlike Mexico right now, there is no reason to fear the quality of Cuban alcohol- it’s safe to drink without fear of blacking out after one drink or being poisoned. Cuba is crawling with tourists from all over the world though and you don’t want to be the next unsuspecting pretty girl who gets killed by some other tourist.
How do I get a travel Visa? How do I fill out the form?
The cruise line will issue you a travel Visa. You will be required to fill out a form explaining how you qualify for a Visa. The recent changes/restrictions have essentially eliminated the “person-to-person” options as valid. You need a “reason” to be going and it needs to be via an approved travel or private agency.
Assuming you have no genuine business in Cuba such as a meeting with an aid group to build water wells, meeting with a political figure like a foreign ambassador, or a meeting with the keeper of the national museum, you will want to book a tour.
If you book a shore excursion through the ship you are good to go. Done deal. Check that box and enjoy your vacation. You will be permitted to come and go as you please before and after your excursion. You will be permitted to come and go as you please on days you do not have excursions booked as well.
If you don’t want to book a shore excursion you aren’t out of luck. You can do what we did and book a private tour. You will want to do a little research to make sure the company you use is not affiliated with the Cuban government, military, or any intelligence agency. Some popular tour companies include Havana Tours with Blexie and Old Car Tours Havana. See who other people have liked and make sure they aren’t on this list:
If you book a private tour you will select the all-day third party tour options. Again, you’ll be allowed to come and go as you please. This kind of all-day, guided activity is considered "meaningful interaction" with the Cuban people, not just recreation. See the difference?
The Visa generally costs between $60-$75 dollars just like it always has.
Save your Visa application form for at least 5 years in case your trip is audited by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC, the Treasury Department), or another government agency.
Here is the Visa application form where you explain the valid reason for travel. You'll notice the Self Guided Program, or what was commonly referred to as "people-to-people", is only for those who booked prior to June 16, 2017 when new restrictions were added.
Other "general license categories" are generally considered something you'd be issued a real travel license for from the Us or Cuban government or through a known agency like the Peace Corpse, aside from family visits.
Booking through a known, independent tour agency in Cuba each day of your travel will allow you to show your valid businesses in Cuba during the duration of your travel. Save your correspondence with the tour company. Print a copy of your itinerary for Customs just in case they want to see it.
Filling out your Visa
When you go through Customs in Havana for the first time it will be up to the individual customs officer to review and accept your forms and stamp your passport. It’s case-by-case. Step up when the person before you leaves the agent's desk. They will not call you forward; just go when the space opens up. Take off your hat and glasses or sunglasses. Present your passport and both sides of the Visa form to the agent. Smile.
The typical Cuban Tourist Visa is good for 30 days. These are the “best practices” for breezy entry:
Your Visa sides (left and right) must match exactly and they must match your PASSPORT exactly.
Better safe than sorry. What this means is if your “first name” section of your passport has your first given name and your middle name put both names on the form in the first name section.
If your passport says United States of America for county of citizenship put UNITED STATES OF AMERICA not US or USA.
If your date of birth appears as 09 03 1989 write 09 03 1989 not Sept 3rd 1989 or 9-3-89.
Get it? No differences. No questions. No confusion.
You will need to bring your valid passport to Cuba. I know there are cruise lines that will let you on with the passport card, or even an enhanced ID or birth certificate. That's fine if you want to stay on the boat. If you want to get off, however, you need to bring a passport.
Make sure you have at least two blank pages in your passport and that it will not expire for at least 90 days from the date of entry. 90 days is the maximum term a US citizen is typically allowed to stay on a tourist Visa so your passport should be good at least as long as your stay could be extended. Officially, Cuba doesn't have a six-month rule for passport expiration but many cruise lines (and airlines) do require your passport to be good for six months.
*If you are not taking a cruise you may also be required to show proof of medical travel health insurance from an approved company and proof that you have booked your return ticket out of Cuba.
What can I bring through Customs?
You can bring your everyday bag through customs when you get off the ship including your glasses, makeup, documents, bug spray, sunscreen, tour information, and a normal sized water bottle. You’ll be asked to go through a metal detector so nothing that looks like or is shaped like a weapon please.
I recommend you bring a plastic self-defense key-chain if you have one. Leave the pepper spray at home.
It’s common for tourists to bring things for the Cuban people. You might give a gift to a tour guide, local kids, people you meet on the street, taxi drivers who let you take a picture in front of their car. Be smart about what you bring. Don’t bring suitcases full of stuff either- a small backpack is fine. Don’t bring food. Don’t call it a “donation”. You can bring a few “gifts” for your “friends in Cuba” without anyone getting upset. Car guys like electrical tape, gaskets, rubber hoses-- things they can turn into the parts they need. Toothbrushes, legos, kids books and small toys like fidget spinners are popular gifts.
What’s the deal with Cuban money?
You won't be able to use your debit or credit cards in Cuba. So what do you do?
Cuba uses a unit of money just for tourists called a Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC (pronounced, for some reason, “kook”). It’s a $1 to $1 ratio rather than allowing tourists to convert into the native Cuban Peso and spend that (which is a $1 to $25 ratio in our favor). CUCs have monuments on them, CUPs (which you don’t want and can’t spend in most places) have faces on them.
You can’t order CUCs from Travelex or your bank. You have to exchange for them in Cuba. You can exchange money at many locations including the cruise terminal. The fee is a flat rate everywhere no matter where you go. 10-13% will get your US dollars converted to CUCs. If you have extra CUCs at the end of your stay it’s another 10-13% to get it back in US dollars. If you happen to have Euros or Canadian cash on hand from a recent trip take that and convert it without the extra fee.
The line at the cruise terminal moves likes lightning; don’t sweat a long line when you arrive. You can also duck into a nearby hotel and exchange without a line but again, watch which one you go to so as not to accidentally drop into one on the forbidden list.
Many people say that they had no trouble paying for their food and other items with US dollars.
Experts generally agree it is technically illegal to bring Cuban money home. It's unlikely you'll be asked about it entering the country through customs.
What else do I need?
Health insurance approved by the Cuban government for emergencies and accidents in Cuba. since May of 2010 health insurance is required for tourists or Cubans living abroad visiting Cuba. They don’t want tourists dying on their island for any reason. You must get health insurance. If you cruise to Cuba the cruise line will supply you with health insurance (built into the cost of your cruise). Honestly this is also a real help to your peace of mind when traveling. I know travelers who’ve been injured in accidents in foreign countries so I always advocate for insurance when you travel. Ask our friend Candace where she was when she broke her leg :)
You should assume that normal US Health insurance will not be accepted in Cuba. For minor medical emergencies you will likely be asked to pay in cash and be reimbursed by your travel insurance provider. For major medical emergencies you would likely be flown to the US. Allianz is a popular provider of this type of insurance. You might expect to pay about $100-$200 for a week-long stay in Cuba if you pay out of pocket and travel by plane.
What to avoid in Cuba
Don’t panic if it takes a minute the first time you go through Customs. It will be super- fast once you’ve got your passport stamped and your Visa has been accepted. Sometimes their internet is slow, sometimes it takes a minute for them to pull you up. The time it takes varies from person to person. Natalie got through in a jiffy when we went and I went right after her and it took much longer for me. No big deal.
Don’t bring walkie-talkies. There’s a whole thing about listening devices in Cuba.
Don’t pay full price. Haggling is part of the local culture. I don’t mean you should haggle over the price of a sandwich at a restaurant but if you are approached by a cab driver and decide to take a tour you can bargain for a lower price. There is also a great antique market between the pier and Old Havana down a garbage alley. The garbage is probably the best indicator you’re going the right way; it’s in a small square. A great place to pick up antiquarian books, religious iconography, vintage movie posters and more.
Don’t Freak out if you get hassled by the cops. It’s normal for pretty girls to get hollered at on the streets, even by the cops. Just smile and keep walking. Make a little wave, don’t stop; you aren’t being detained unless they expressly say so. If you get pulled over by the cops while you’re riding in a taxi, don’t freak out. They probably just want a bribe. Our cab driver had to pay off two sets of Cuban policia the day we took our long tour out to Vinales; it’s normal. Stay calm, don’t stare, don’t reach for anything. Let your tour guide or driver handle it unless they ask for your papers. Which brings us to …
Don’t forget your passport. Carry it at all times.
Have fun in Cuba!
Disclaimer: Please remember, we're not lawyers and everyone's travel plans and situations are different. The information contained here is based on our experience and is provided for informational purposes. We're not liable for any errors or omissions in this information and accept no responsibility for any damages or losses arising in connection with the use of this website. Links directing to third-party websites are used for informational purposes only and serve as a resource for the reader. We don't accept responsibility for the content of 3rd party linked sites or liability from their use. Individual travel restrictions may apply to you. Do your research. Be safe, be smart. Know your limits.