Let’s face it, traveling to Cuba can be complicated and confusing for US travelers, due to strict rules and regulations. When I first booked my trip, I felt daunted by these regulations, from choosing the right visa to what you can bring home as a souvenir. But don’t feel intimidated by these stricter regulations! Traveling to Cuba as a US citizen is not as complicated as the internet makes it seem. By doing some research in advance, you can rest assured and feel prepared as you set off to explore this wonderful island!
Declaring a travel category is required
Declaring a travel category is required for entering Cuba. There are twelve categories to choose from and Americans are able to travel independently with eleven of them. The most common category is the “support for the Cuban people” category, which allows independent travelers to support local businesses. This also means travelers must avoid all transactions with a GAESA-owned (military-owned) business. More activities that count towards this category are listed below. Additional categories depending where your trip may fall under include family visits; official business for the US government, foreign government and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalism; professional research; religious activities; public performances; humanitarian projects;
activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain export transactions.
You will need a Cuban tourist card and medical insurance to enter the country
While not technically a visa, all US citizens are required to purchase the pink tourist card upon entry into Cuba. Tourist cards allow US travelers to stay in Cuba for up to 30 days. These tourist cards will always be pink for US citizens, unless traveling to Cuba via another country. These cost $50 when purchased right at the airport to $80 if purchased online in advance. Medical insurance is also required throughout a trip to Cuba, however US based health insurance is not accepted in Cuba, due to the embargo. An insurance policy can be purchased and are included through most airline tickets.
Bring cash and determine the best exchange rates accordingly
Cuba is primarily a cash country. Not to mention, American credit and debit cards will not work whatsoever (again due to the embargo). Cuban currency is divided into two types: the Pesos Nacionales (CUPs) and Cuban Convertibles (CUCs). CUPs are the local currency while CUCs are intended for foreigners and accepted throughout the country. The exchange rate between CUC and USD is 1:1, but if you exchange 100 USD, you’ll receive 87 CUC in return. There is a 3% exchange fee that all currencies are subject to plus a 10% tax only for US dollars. If you have leftover cash from a previous trip, Euros and Canadian dollars might be more cost effective and recommended to bring to convert to CUCs. Do your research to make sure you are not losing more money in foreign currency transaction fees.
Eat at local restaurants and Paladares
As of 2017, US tourists are not permitted to dining at state and government run restaurants. A paladar is an independent restaurant run by individual entrepreneurs, not the Cuban government. They are a new type of restaurant that the government approved starting in 2010. These restaurants offer one of the best ways to try authentic and unique Cuban cuisine while supporting the locals!
Stay in Casa Particulares
Since government-run hotels are off limits to US travelers, what better way to get the authentic feel of Cuba by living like a local! Casa particulares allow you to get a real feel for daily Cuban life since you rent out a room from a Cuban family in a local neighborhood home. You’ll have the opportunity to visit with them and create a real connection with incredible people who have proudly invited you into their home. They will often cook traditional Cuban food and family favorites for you. You can book them through Airbnb or through pre-planned trips, such as Sourced Adventures or The Clymb.
Keep your receipts after your trip (just in case)
The US government is allowed to ask you for receipts and records from your trip to Cuba for up to five years. Keep all of these on file in the unlikely event you’re asked for them. The US government has a list of restrictions, including hotels, restaurants, and entities. If traveling independently, make sure you review this list prior to your trip to avoid any complications. While I know it tends to be a travel preference, I found Cuba a great country to book an “all-inclusive” trip, including accommodation, meals, and excursions, in order to support the Cuban people and avoid any illegal purchases. Plus, these “support the Cuban people” all inclusive trips are usually hosted by locals. What better way to truly learn about the culture than to be submersed in it?