Updated: June 2019
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In June 2019, the Trump administration imposed the newest travel restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba. America alleged that its employees at the U.S. embassy in Havana were subject to sonic attacks by the Cuban government and issued travel warnings. These recent tensions between the two nations have left many Americans confused about whether or not they can still travel to Cuba and how they can do so legally.
“We have strengthened our Cuba policies to channel economic activity away from the Cuban military and to encourage the government to move toward greater political and economic freedom for the Cuban people,”
Is it legal for Americans to travel to Cuba?
Yes! It is still legal to travel to Cuba, and Americans can do so without too much hassle. However, technically it is not legal to travel as a tourist.
In practice hundreds of thousands of Americans go to Cuba every year on holiday. You just have to be a little more aware of where you stay and what you buy. In addition, you must do a bit more research and preparation than you would on an average trip to the Caribbean.
Do Americans need a license to travel to Cuba?
First of all, it is important to note that all restrictions come from the American government. The Cuban government is happy to see American visitors, with no restrictions.
Whilst it is prohibited for Americans to travel to Cuba for tourist activities, independent travel to Cuba is still legal. Here are the essential things you need to know if you are traveling to Cuba with an American passport.
So you do not need a pre-approved license as long as your travel fits within one of the 12 valid travel categories.
12 Approved travel categories
First, you need to chose valid travel category. Americans can pick one of the 12 approved travel categories:
- 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;
- and certain authorized export transactions.
The most commonly chosen category by independent travellers is called ‘support for the Cuban people.’ This means you need to have an itinerary with meaningful local interactions and engaging with private Cuban businesses. This can include staying at casas particulares, eating at local restaurants, taking salsa lessons at a dance school etc. This is a general license, meaning that no pre-approval is needed.
You will need the following travel documents for your trip to Cuba:
- Passport that will be valid for at least six months after the date of your travel to Cuba.
- Travel Card / Visa
The travel card grants you to stay in Cuba for a period of up to 30 days and can be extended once during your stay. If you are are flying directly from the US to Cuba, you can arrange your travel card through your airline. You can buy them online or at the airline desk at the airport before you go through security. This can range from $50 to $85 depending on which airline you fly.
- Flight / Cruise tickets
Since 2016, many major airlines operate commercial flights to Cuba and it is easy to find direct flights from the US to Cuba. Southwest, JetBlue, Delta, United and American all offer direct flights from the US to Cuba. Despite changing political relations, the number of American visitors traveling to the Caribbean island is on the rise and airlines are increasing their services to meet demand.
- Health Insurance
You are required to have travel insurance in Cuba. Make sure to read the fine print to see if the policy covers any activities you may be planning to do, for example scuba diving. It is also recommended you get full coverage for theft and medical problems, as well as ambulances and an emergency flight home.
Where to stay
Many independent American visitors who travel under the support for the Cuban people category, stay in casas particulares. Cuban homeowners rent out their rooms or an area of the house to visitors. This the best way to have an authentic Cuban experience and get to interact with locals. Staying at a casa particular also complies with restrictions as you are supporting private Cuban enterprises rather than military-owned businesses. You can book casas before your visit through booking sites like Booking.com and Airbnb.
There are different types of accommodations you can chose in Cuba, but keep in mind that there is a list of hotels banned by the U.S. Department of State where American citizens and green card holders are not permitted to stay. As of November 2018, the Trump administration added an additional 26 hotels and resorts to the list so make sure you double check if you already booked accommodation.
Things to do
There are many activities you can do under the support for the Cuban people travel category. The main thing to keep in mind is to support local private enterprises. If you are unsure about what activities you are allowed to do, you might want to book a tour or seek the advice of local heroes.
If it’s your first visit, we recommend you familiarise yourself with Cuban money and the double currency system. We recommend that you take cash with you because American debit and credit cards don’t work on the island. You can find ATM’s in Cuba and some places also accept card payment, but chances are you won’t be able to use your American card.
If you are exchanging American dollars, expect to be faced with a 10% commission, which doesn’t apply to other currencies. You could take Euros or Pounds to avoid the fee, and it is worth checking the exchange rates to see if it is worth it.
There is a lot of debate between whether it’s worth exchanging US dollars in the US to Euros or Canadian…
Make sure that you don’t purchase anything from hotels and stores that help fund or are controlled by the Cuban military, with which no American citizen or green-card holder is allowed to carry out a direct financial transaction.
Other useful facts and tips
U.S. Embassy in Havana
There is a U.S. Embassy in Havana as of July 2015, which offers services to American citizens, that include emergency assistance, passport & citizenship services as well as medical assistance and legal advice.
Find out more about misconceptions that Americans have about Cuba.