Are Americans Allowed to Travel In Cuba?
Are Americans Allowed to Travel In Cuba?
Table of Content

For years, U.S.-Cuba travel by citizens of the United States has been restricted in many ways. There is almost nowhere on planet Earth that the United States restricted its own citizens from traveling to in this way, except Cuba.

In 2014, President Obama announced a new way forward in the relationship between the United States and Cuba. While he didn’t completely normalize relations between the two countries, he made a good start. Importantly he began lifting travel to Cuba restrictions.

Prior to these changes, Cuba travel for Americans was much more challenging, generally requiring Cuba education travel with a group trip or an approved company. Americans also frequently traveled to Cuba through Mexico or Canada to skirt U.S. regulations.

In this article, we want to answer all your burning questions about going to Cuba with a US passport. The entry requirements to Cuba, and the 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba.

U.S.-Cuba Relations

The U.S.-Cuba relationship has been plagued by distrust and antagonism since 1959, the year Fidel Castro overthrew a U.S.-backed regime in Havana and established a socialist state allied with the Soviet Union. During the half-century that followed, successive U.S. administrations pursued policies intended to isolate the island country economically and diplomatically. The United States has sanctioned Cuba longer than it has any other country.

Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro took steps to normalize bilateral relations, including restoring diplomatic ties and expanding travel and trade. The Donald Trump administration reversed many of these reforms.

President Joe Biden loosened some U.S. restrictions in the wake of widespread protests on the island and a renewed crackdown by Havana.

Are Americans Allowed to Travel to Cuba?

Yes, Americans can travel to Cuba. Americans can easily get a Cuban travel visa, and you can even fly to Cuba from the United States. The process is a lot easier than you might think.

June 5, 2019 Update: The White House and OFAC have enacted new restrictions to the way Americans can travel to Cuba. However, Americans can still travel to Cuba! It is still 100% legal to do so. Learn more about this announcement in our Cuba travel policy article.

October 25, 2019 Update: The United States has prohibited American airlines from flying anywhere in Cuba EXCEPT Havana. That means you can still fly to Cuba—just that you need to book a flight to Havana. (Which you probably would do, anyway.)

September 28, 2020 Update: The Trump Administration has banned Americans from staying at government-owned hotels. The new restriction also bans Americans from importing Cuban rum or cigars.

There’s a big difference between not being able to travel to Cuba at all and not being able to visit Cuba as a regular tourist. There’s a vast middle ground that allows for travel that’s beneficial to the Cuban people and enjoyable for visitors, too. Even with the recent restrictions, it’s both legal and safe to travel to Cuba.

  • Americans simply have to travel independently under one of eleven allowed categories of travel.
  • The Support for the Cuban People category is most commonly used.
  • Formerly, Americans could travel to Cuba with guided tour companies (under the People to People category, which was the 12th category) or take cruises to Cuba.
  • However, due to President Trump's June 2019 Cuba travel restrictions, the People to People category has been eliminated and cruise ships are barred from going to Cuba.
  • Again, it's still 100% legal to travel to Cuba—you simply have to travel independently under any of the remaining 11 categories of legal travel.

Americans can legally travel to Cuba by simply stating their reason for travel – usually when purchasing an airline ticket. By stating that your purpose of travel is to “Support the Cuban People,” you’re able to travel quite freely, just committing to spend money at small businesses rather than government-run ones.

Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba if the purpose of their trip falls within 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba!

The Trump administration chipped away at Obama-era changes to Cuba travel policy and attempted to dissuade Americans from traveling to Cuba. However, regulations about American travel to Cuba haven’t actually changed all that much, and it’s still quite easy to travel to Cuba – there are just a few more rules to follow when you do.

Some of these changes include:

  • American citizens are no longer able to bring rum or cigars back from Cuba;

  • Americans citizens are now prohibited (by the U.S. government – not the Cuban government) from staying at a variety of hotels in Cuba;

  • Some methods of traveling to Cuba, such as “people to people Cuba” travel organized tours, and the ability to travel to Cuba by cruise, have been scaled back or eliminated.

What Do You Need to Travel to Cuba with a US Passport?

Here is a list of entry requirements to Cuba that you need to comply with before you arrive at a Cuban airport:

1. Valid US passport

You can travel to Cuba with your standard U.S. passport. To avoid any issues while going through customs, make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after your Cuba trip.

2. Cuba Tourist Card

All visitors to Cuba, regardless of country of origin, need to have a special visa called a tourist card. You’ll need to have your tourist card in hand when you board your flight to Cuba.

Every airline has different fees and processes for obtaining a Cuban tourist card. You will need to show your Cuban Tourist Card when checking into the flight in order to board the plane. Currently here is how much a Cuban Tourist Card costs based on airlines:

  • Delta: $50, purchase at the gate
  • JetBlue: $50, purchase at the gate
  • Southwest: $50, purchased online and delivered at the gate
  • United: $75 ($50 visa fee + $25 admin fee), purchase at the gate
  • American: $85 ($50 visa fee + $35 admin fee), purchase online and sent via mail or at a Cuba Ready” Kiosks at CLT or MIA airports for $100 ($50 visa fee + $50 admin fee)

In reality, it’s the U.S. that has an issue with Americans traveling to Cuba. The Cuban government has no issue with it and they want American tourists in Cuba.

3. Travel insurance for Cuba

Travel insurance is a requirement for all visitors to Cuba. Your insurance needs to cover any unexpected medical expenses you may incur during your time on the island.

That’s why there are companies that specialize in insurance just for travelers, like RoamRight. With RoamRight, you’ll get coverage for any medical emergencies that might pop up during your trip. It also offers coverage for travel inconveniences like trip cancellation and lost or stolen gear. One week of RoamRight costs about 50 USD per person.

4. Valid general travel “license” to Cuba

All Americans traveling to Cuba need a “license”, technically referred to as a “general license,” or a category of authorized travel to Cuba. These categories are defined by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

In this article, we indistinctively use “license”, “travel license”, “general license,” and “travel category”.

Confusingly, even though it’s called a license, it’s not actually a license like a driver’s license or even a tourist visa. It’s not a physical document that you need to bring with you to Cuba.

NOTE: As of September 2020, there may be two travel categories that DO require a physical document: Professional research and professional meetings; and Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions.

Getting a Cuba general license means:

  1. You’ve chosen one of the U.S. government’s 12 categories for legal travel to Cuba.
  2. You meet all the criteria for traveling to Cuba under your chosen category.

Confusing terminology aside, getting your Cuba general license is pretty easy. Take a look at our step-by-step section below.

5. Customs and health declaration forms

Cuba requires all travelers to bring a Sanitary Statement and a Customs Declaration form. We suggest you complete the documentation online at D’Viajeros, the government’s website for this purpose. You will save time and annoyances!

6. Cuba travel restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The current travel restrictions to Cuba include random Antigent test upon arrival, and a Sanitary Statement, and some mobility and business restrictions.

While in Cuba, you must comply with the restrictions imposed by the Cuban authorities to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Social distancing (5 ft) and face masks are required everywhere.
  • You may be subject to contact tracing questions or random temperature checks.
  • There is limited capacity and operating hours at most tourist facilities.
  • Large gatherings are not allowed.
  • Travel within and between cities and provinces may be restricted.
  • You can even receive fines for non-compliance! (Although that would be very rare)

Please, notice that as of April 4th, 2022, proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test is not required.

12 Categories of Authorized Travel to Cuba

The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are the twelve types of trips that citizens of the U.S. are able to take to Cuba without otherwise requesting permission from the government of the United States.

Importantly, the category of authorized travel you select is the reason you’ll be giving to the United States government for your travel to Cuba. Cuba will simply consider you a tourist, and won’t limit what you can do in the country as the U.S. does.

These are the Twelve Authorized Categories:

  • Family visits

  • Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and international 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 export transactions.

When traveling under these categories of approved travel, you don’t need any sort of special visa or permission as long as what you plan to do during your trip follows the guidelines of the category you select.

Where to get a Cuba visa in the US?

Photo: themomtrotter
Photo: themomtrotter

The first method implies a trip to a Cuban embassy. You can find them in every state, but you need to go there personally. Before you go, we recommend that you give them a call and ask about the requirements, just to make sure that you leave with everything you need. Overall, you need a valid passport that maintains its status as valid for at least another 6 months from your date of arrival in Cuba. Once you get there, you need to fill in an application form, and the diplomatic mission will issue the visa according to their available processing time.

The second method of getting a Cuba visa in the US is to purchase one at the airline you are traveling with. However, not all of them have this facility, and you need to do some research first. Surely they have an official website, but if you cannot find the information you need, just give them a call, and they will let you know.

Thirdly, some travel agencies across the US include in their packages the option of applying for a Cuba Tourist card for you. The only downside to this method is that not all people visit Cuba through travel agencies. Some prefer to handle the itinerary on themselves. It saves some cash. And it is not like you can use a travel agency just for the purpose of requesting a Cuba Tourist card. It only comes as a part of a package.

Can Americans fly to Cuba from the US?

Yes, there are nonstop flights to Havana from cities like Miami, New York, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, and more. In order to take these flights to Cuba, you must have a visa to Cuba.

For a period of time during the Trump and Biden administrations, flights to Cuba from the United States were only authorized to fly to Havana, and could not fly to any of Cuba’s other airports. However, the Biden administration has recently lifted this restriction – airlines are now scheduling new flights between the United States and other Cuban cities, allowing Americans to have more direct access to the rest of the island!

Can Americans use credit cards in Cuba?

No, Americans cannot use credit cards or even ATMs in Cuba. Your bank will freeze your account if you attempt to do so.

Americans cannot make financial transactions in Cuba. You can’t use ATMs, debit cards, or credit cards, even if you have a visa, which means that you need to arrive with all the cash you’d need for your full stay.

So how do you handle money in Cuba as an American? You’ll be in good shape if you bring US dollars or Euros and exchange them on the ground. (In the past, US dollars got you a worse rate, but as of early 2020, US dollars and Euros both get you a good rate.)

Is there internet in Cuba?

There is internet in Cuba, but it’s very limited — most of the time, you need to buy a one-hour wifi card and visit an access point in order to use it.

You see “free wifi” signs everywhere around the world — but in Cuba, it has a different meaning. Normally, “free wifi” means you can hop on the internet with no issues. In places like Belarus and Turkey, it usually means free wifi if you have a local phone number.

But in Cuba, “free wifi” usually means that there’s a wifi network nearby that you can use — but with the wifi cards you already paid for.

Don’t have any wifi cards? You’ll need to buy some. You can get them at the local Etecsa store; some hotels sell them, too. They cost $1 per hour, and some people on the street sell them for more, saving you the wait in line.

You can easily tell a wifi hotspot in Cuba because you’ll see people clustered around and absorbed in their phones. One popular spot in Old Havana is outside the Hotel Ingleterra; you can also find hotspots at Etecsa stores and in some parks.

Occasionally you’ll find a place where you can hop on the wifi without entering your card info. These places are rare, but they do exist.

Hotels in Cuba

The limitations placed on US Cuba travel by the Trump Administration also include a list of hotels that American travelers are not allowed to stay at during their trip to Cuba.

Some newspapers and websites have been incorrectly reporting that Americans are not allowed to stay in any hotel in Cuba, but this is not actually the case. Americans are just prohibited from staying in certain hotels that are owned entirely or partially by the Cuban government.

There are many boutique hotels with private ownership where Americans are still able to stay, plus private rentals called “casas particulares” or private home rentals like Airbnbs. There are tons of options from staying in a spare room in someone’s apartment all the way to staying in a massive, private colonial mansion with a pool. There is a casa particular for every traveler.

Bonus Tip for Americans Traveling to Cuba: Stick to Private

Photo: skift
Photo: skift

Book tours directly from local guides

Cuba is filled with tour guides ready to introduce you to the island, its culture, and history. Plus, there are tours for everyone–from riding around Havana in a vintage car to horseback riding in rugged Viñales or hiking in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

However, keep in mind that not all tour guides are reputable. Cuba has only recently begun to experience a huge burst in tourism–especially from the US–, and there are lots of people looking to profit off tourists. To avoid getting scammed by fake or unprofessional guides, you should only book tours through legitimate local guides. And if they do a good job, don’t forget to tip them!

Tour Republic offers exciting adventures all over the island led by skilled local guides. You’ll be in good hands!

Stay in casas particulares

Casas particulares (private houses) are like the Cuban version of bed and breakfasts.

They’re owned by Cuban families who rent out rooms for a daily fee. Not only are they more affordable than staying in a hotel, but they also offer a much more authentic Cuban experience.

Plus, many casas even offer home-cooked breakfast in the morning. You can stay in a casa for around 20-50 USD/night.

As a precaution, please review the latest Cuba Prohibited Accommodations List to make sure that your casa particular is not on the list of prohibited accommodations.

Eat at paladares

Paladares are private restaurants owned by Cubans who have a passion and talent for fine Cuban food.

Menus at paladares have more variety and better service than Cuba’s government-owned restaurants. The cost of dining in a paladar varies depending on how fancy or down-to-earth the place is. But generally speaking, you can expect to pay between 10-30 USD per meal. By the way, check out our full breakdown of a realistic trip to Cuba cost.

At home, you’re probably used to using websites like Yelp to help you decide where to eat next, but the Internet is limited in Cuba. Thus, we recommend bringing a travel guide like this one from Lonely Planet instead.

Please, check out our food safety guide for more information on how to stay healthy in Cuba and save some bucks on your trip.

Ride in private taxis

When you flag down a taxi in Cuba, you’ll notice two different taxis: state taxis and private taxis (almendrones).

State taxis are owned and operated by the Cuban government, while private taxis are run by private taxi drivers. Chances are, the almendrones will catch your eye because many of them are the colorful, beautifully restored vintage American cars that have become synonymous with Cuba.

Support the local businesses

If you travel to Cuba under the Support for the Cuban People category, you’ll need to support local Cuban businesses during your trip.

Supporting local businesses includes staying in casas particulares, eating at paladares, attending a performance by a local musician or artist, or taking a cooking or salsa dancing class.

Is Cuba Safe for Americans?

Many Americans, even once they realize that they can travel to Cuba, have an impression that it may be unsafe to do so – this could not be further from the truth.

Cuba is really working and striving to improve tourism and attract more travelers to Cuba from ALL countries, and it really shows. Americans traveling to Cuba can be assured that they’ll be completely safe, I can promise you that.

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