Traveling to Cuba as a U.S. Citizen: What You Need to Know
For decades, it was illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. With the thawing of relations between the two countries during the Obama administration, travel to Cuba – including direct flights from the U.S. mainland, finally became possible. However, the Trump administration changed some of those rules, leaving many Americans confused about whether or not travel to Cuba was even possible. The good news is that U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba, but only under certain conditions. If you’ve been dreaming about Havana, here’s what you need to know about visiting the Caribbean’s largest island nation!
Legally, no independent tourist travel is allowed for U.S. citizens in Cuba. There are 12 types of licensing categories under which U.S. citizens may travel to the country, including the one I used: Support for the Cuban People. Under the terms of this license, U.S. citizens must provide an itinerary to show that they are spending at least 6 hours per day doing activities that support small businesses in Cuba. Namely, it means things like staying in AirBnbs or casa particulares, rather than in state-run hotels. Doing tours or activities with local business owners, such as taking a bike tour around Havana, also qualify. In order to make sure my itinerary met the requirements of the license, I used ViaHero. The website employs local people to arrange activities, transportation, and more that will comply with your license! It’s super easy to use and inexpensive – just $25 per day, which was well worth the peace of mind of knowing that my itinerary met all the legal requirements! The visa itself is paid for at the airport of your departure, and you’ll receive a tourist card upon arrival.
The most stressful part of traveling to Cuba, for me, was that U.S. credit and debit cards do not work there. That means that you have to travel with all of the cash you think you’ll need for the entire trip! Cuban currency is only available in Cuba, so you can’t order it from your bank ahead of time. There is also a tax on exchanging U.S. dollars, so you will end up losing about 15% of your money if you convert U.S. dollars to the Cuban currency. I ordered Euros from my bank and exchanged those in order to avoid the tax, saving about 5% overall. I’d recommend paying for as much as possible ahead of time (Airbnb, any tours you might be interested in doing) to avoid running out of money.
Growing up in South Florida, I’ve been surrounded by great Cuban food for the majority of my life. However, food in Cuba itself hasn’t had the best reputation because of the difficulty in acquiring ingredients that we take for granted, like herbs and spices. I’m happy to report that food in country has gotten significantly better in recent years! While not every meal is going to be a home run, I ate a lot of delicious seafood (Hello, lobster!) while I was there. Still, sometimes you’ll go to a restaurant and order something from the menu, only to be told it isn’t available that day. That didn’t happen to me very often, but it can happen!
The water is not potable in Cuba, so you’ll need to account for that. Depending on where you are in the country, bottled water may or may not be easily accessible, so it’s recommended to bring your own filtration system. Personally, I used the GRAYL filtration bottle, because it’s an easy 2-step process to completely filter your water. I’ve taken it trekking in Nepal, on safari in Africa, and more, so I know it is up to the task! I also loved using the GRAYL because it saved precious dollars (see above) and eliminated the trash from bottled water.
Simple things that we take for granted in the U.S., like toiletries and sunscreen, can be difficult or impossible to find in Cuba. If you do find them, they’re extremely expensive, so make sure you pack everything you think you might need. Wi-Fi is available on a limited basis in some public areas (like parks), and is purchased by the hour for about $2. No U.S. cell phone companies have contracts in Cuba, so calls are extremely expensive – as a Verizon customer, I would have been charged $3 a minute! It’s not the end of the world, just something to be aware of.
Cuba is an absolutely stunning country, and you won’t regret a visit there. The people are warm, friendly, and so excited to meet Americans. I can’t tell you how many high fives and hugs we got upon informing people we were from the U.S. Visiting Cuba as a U.S. citizen is far from impossible, so take the opportunity to support the Cuban people!