- See also: Visa trouble
Although the government of Cuba permits United States citizens to visit, the U.S. restricts its citizens from travelling there, except with a license issued by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. The specific restriction is against spending money in Cuba. However, U.S. authorities consider any visit of more than one day to be prima facie proof that one has spent money there. Furthermore, OFAC also holds that U.S. citizens also may not receive goods or services for free from any Cuban national, eliminating any attempts to circumvent the regulation based on that premise.
With a license
All U.S. citizens are obliged by the U.S. to have a license even if they travel to Cuba through a third country.
Licenses allowing persons from the U.S. to spend money in Cuba are granted to certain classes of people for particular purposes.
A general license does not require paperwork and has long applied to the following:
- Professional journalists on assignment in Cuba
- Full-time professionals conducting academic research or attending professional conferences
- Persons on official government business
In 2016, the Obama administration relaxed the restrictions to extend the general license to these additional groups:
- Family visits
- All journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational or 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 information materials and certain authorized export transactions.
This extends the general license to some categories of voyager (such as freelance journalists) who formerly required a specific license, which involved paperwork and State Department approval on case-by-case basis.
U.S. citizens whose primary interest is tourism might be able to travel under the auspices of a program whose activities are sufficiently religious, educational, cultural, or otherwise exempt to qualify for a license. For instance, an individual with a credible background in freelance journalism or academics could readily craft a "mission" for their visit which appears to comply with the regulations.
As of 2016, major US airlines were beginning to reinstate direct flights to Cuba from Miami or other U.S. points which had been suspended since the Cold War era of the 1960s. The Trump administration has re-tightened regulations to a limited degree, such as by restricting the ability of U.S. citizens to patronize the many travel establishments controlled by the Cuban military, but for the moment it remains possible for some voyagers to reach Cuba directly from U.S. territory for the first time since the Communist revolution and the Cold War era. As of October 2019, the Trump administration has announced a ban on direct commercial flights from the U.S. to all Cuban cities except Havana.
Without a license
Many U.S. citizens instead travel without a license, doing so by way of other countries (many of which have routine flights to and from Cuba) to escape detection. Such countries include the Bahamas, Canada and Mexico. However, U.S. Customs Pre-Clearance facilities now exist at many airports in The Bahamas, Canada, Costa Rica, and Jamaica.
Via the Bahamas
From Nassau, Cubana offers flights to Havana daily, except on Saturdays. Bahamasair offers flights on Thursday and Sunday. This is the cheapest and quickest route flying direct to Havana, especially for those living in the South Florida area.
A common practice for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba via Canada is a two-leg flight: a flight booking for a flight to (and from) Canada and then a separate booking for the flight to (and from) Cuba. The two legs must be booked separately, as airlines such as Air Canada prohibit the booking of U.S. origin passengers to Cuba. Alternatively, you could drive or be driven across the border and dropped off in a Canadian city, and depart from there. This is more easily done for people near Detroit or Buffalo, as non-stop flights to Havana depart from either Montreal or Toronto.
Mexico is considered safer and is probably the most popular. However, it still carries some risk: If you travel from Mexico to Cuba (which won't stamp your passport) and then back to Mexico, you will have two Mexican entry stamps; having two consecutive Mexican entry stamps could raise suspicions if your passport is checked carefully. If you decide to re-enter Mexico from Cuba, you could try to convince the Mexican immigration officer not to stamp your passport a second time.
It used to be possible to use a birth certificate + U.S. ID to enter Mexico the second time to only get one stamp in the passport. This was allowed under Mexican law for U.S. citizens, but since 2010, all U.S. citizens – including children – have been required to present a valid passport or passport card for travel beyond the “border zone” into the interior of Mexico.
Another safe bet would be to purchase an open-jaw ticket (Cancun-Havana and then Havana-Guatemala city, for example).
Mexico doesn't stamp passports on exit, and in that case it would look like in your passport that you flew from Cancun to Guatemala City (or whatever city is your final destination out of Havana).
Cancún is one of the easier gateways, with several different airlines offering daily flights to Havana. Although it may be slightly worrisome to show up not knowing what to expect, if you arrive earlier in the day it's usually possible to walk up to one of the airline counters and buy an onward ticket for same day travel, as flights on this route are rarely full. Try Cubana. Aeromexico flies 2 times a week.
U.S. citizens also travel via countries without U.S. customs stations (Guatemala, Venezuela, Panama, Cayman Islands, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Haiti, etc.) to reduce the likelihood of being caught. A substantial number simply take their chances, hoping they will not be questioned. U.S. citizens are advised by Cuban travel agents not to bring back anything identifiably Cuban (including tickets and receipts) before re-entering the country.
There are no regular ferries or boats to Cuba from foreign ports, although some cruise liners do visit. Yachters are expected to anchor at the public marinas. Also, most ports are closed and tourists are not permitted to walk around them. Private vessels may enter at Marina Hemingway in Havana or Marina Acua in Varadero. Entry requires a U.S. passport, but there are no visa requirements. Your passport will not be stamped by Cuban authorities unless you request it. You will likely be intercepted upon your return to America and fined $5,000, although this is just a formality. You will not be expected to actually pay this fine nor have there been any repercussions or attempts to collect. The only attempt to prosecute was the case of Peter Goldsmith v. United States. This case was dismissed with prejudice in late 2004 in the Miami District Court.
Because of the embargo, there can be very serious cash complications for a Cuba traveler. Bank cash cards (bank-issued debit cards) from all countries are useless. For Americans, all credit and debit cards from any U.S. financial institution will not work in Cuba. For everyone else, any credit card issued by a foreign bank with a U.S. parent company or U.S. processing firm will also be blocked. In most cases, international Visa- and MasterCard-branded global payment (debit) and credit cards will work, but only if completely unaffiliated with any U.S. subsidiary or U.S.-owned clearinghouse. Regardless of your nationality or location, please research & double-check with your home bank to confirm the card's functionality in Cuba specifically: foreign banks may offer competing card products, some tied to US firms. Travelers have reported receiving bad information from their branch banks - speak to someone in authority if necessary. Don't get stuck in Cuba without money, because of poor planning: know before you go!
Tourists normally carry enough cash for a short Cuba trip. Most bring their own currency; confirm that yours is accepted, and calculate the most recent exchange rates at the Banco Metropolitano [dead link]. Because Cuba imposes a 10% penalty on the exchange of U.S. dollars, it is not recommended to take larger sums of U.S. dollars to Cuba. Travelers converting over US$1,000. generally choose euros or Canadian dollars, and for the best rates, it's best to organize in advance. Finding the best exchange should never be left until the last minute: U.S. airport and retail forex kiosks offer some of the worst exchange rates. With two conversion (for example, U.S. dollars to Canadian dollars to pesos), costs can range anywhere between 8-20% depending on the amount and exchange rate at two banks; the relative savings (or loss) can be significant for the budget traveler. For longer trips, exchange what you need in stages: its a waste to reconvert a lump sum of unused CUPs (pesos) at departure (losing on yet another transaction.) But for shorter trip, be practical: how many visits to an ATM or bank would be necessary on a 7-day vacation? The foreign exchange booths (CADECAs) in Cuban airports offer extremely fair rates, but always be mindful of the calculations and never change for pesos on the street.
All the normal precautions apply, for traveling with big wads of cash: some travelers use money belts and/or travel security devices; others rent a hotel safe (it is not necessary to be a guest to do so.) Most just carefully hide valuables amongst their belongings, carrying a small amount of daily cash. Tourist theft in licensed casas particulares is very rare; a licensed owner has every incentive to protect you so respect their rules & security. Staying in unlicensed casas is riskier for theft, as is being drunk & bringing in shady locals.
Sensible travelers will generally avoid any electronic- or paper-trail evidence of unlicensed expenses, where that may be an issue.
As an alternative to carrying only cash (and contrary to popular belief), U.S. travelers cheques are accepted and economical. But unlike many destinations, travelers cheques are less convenient and cannot be replaced on island if lost/stolen. Also, proof is required for cashing: remember to bring your receipts with you to the Cuban bank!
Another option used primarily for family remittance, several debit & rechargeable payment cards might make sense for long-term or repeat travelers, especially as "back-up" or emergency funds: students abroad, take note! Investigate the different fees & terms, and allow three- to four weeks for the debit card pick-up on island. As of 2008, the favored debit cards used by Canadians, Europeans and others include Duales and AIS.
Also, repeat visitors may wish to consider opening a bank account in Cuba. From a Canadian bank, the wire cost is not excessive for larger transfers such as a semester's expenses. Unlike many Canadian and European banks, very few U.S. institutions are authorized to make licensed transfers (via bank wires) to correspondent banks in Cuba. To facilitate & speed this extraordinary type of transaction (if possible), get the correspondent banks' SWIFT & IBAN codes in advance. Keeping money in a local Cuban bank may be the safest option for a regular & repeat Cuba traveler.
Lastly, anyone suffering catastrophic loss would probably have to visit their consulate or embassy. Emergency funds can be arranged this way, but the process will be time-consuming and the fees will be extraordinarily expensive.
Regardless of nationality, it is extremely unwise to carry on your person/baggage any evidence of possible Embargo violations, or to discuss any travel expenses with a U.S. government official. A vigilant, prudent traveler knows s/he is under no obligation to do so, regardless of what some border guard threatens. The above constitutes neither a recommendation nor legal advice; it is provided only as informational reference and the common-sense of many previous Cuba travelers.
Since the restoration of diplomatic relations on July 20, 2015, the U.S. Embassy in Havana has reopened in what used to be the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy. It is in the Vedado district, along the Malecon. They can assist you if you lose your passport or have similar troubles, and can be reached at ☏ (for emergencies outside normal business hours, dial extension 1 to select English, then 0 to speak to an operator) or ✉ email@example.com. If you are in Cuba without a licence, only go to the embassy if you are in grave danger or trouble.
You are allowed to bring informational materials (books, CDs, records, etc.) and certain types of artwork into the United States, but importing other types of Cuban goods is not allowed. Having any article, receipt, coins etc. that says hecho en Cuba opens the door to further inquiries about having a travel license. It's best to do a pre-departure cleanup of all baggage.
Even if a traveler has a license to visit, quantities of Cuban cigars or spirits brought back are limited to personal use. Cigars without labels may be presumed to be Cuban, drawing unwanted attention. Also, if unlicensed, bringing back anything that can be identified as Cuban would cause problems, especially if US authorities decide to search your luggage.
U.S. citizens caught traveling to Cuba without a license will not be denied re-entry, but may be subject to civil penalties of several thousand dollars and/or criminal prosecution. Making false statements to USCIS agents can be added to the charges if you falsely report your travels (e.g. omitting Cuba) at the port of entry, which leads some travelers to give an honest declaration along with an attempt to justify their visit under the general license if they come under scrutiny. Others simply omit Cuba and take their chances. Invoking your Fifth-Amendment right to remain silent may also come in handy when filling out forms or answering more questions whose answers might incriminate you. Simple advice is to smile, then decline to chat, because all this traveling has made you tired. Giving conflicting stories at this point could be construed as making false statements (18USC 1001). Many violators avoid fines by contesting the notices, with the government backing down rather than putting the effort into prosecution and testing their restrictions in court, and nobody has actually been prosecuted under this law since 2009. (The constitutionality of OFAC's "presumption of guilt" regarding spending money in Cuba has not been tested in the courts thus far.) The National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights provide legal representation for U.S. citizens accused of violating these restrictions.