For decades Cuba was off limits to American citizens due to sanctions placed against Cuba in response to the actions of the Cuban Government. This all happened back in 1962 when John F Kennedy Jr was President. In 2016 under President Obama, restrictions to Cuba were relaxed, however there are still some rules to follow in order to travel there. We’ll cover everything you need to know about how to visit Cuba as an American.
Can Americans legally travel to Cuba
Yes, it is definitely legal for Americans to now travel to Cuba, but there are certain requirements and conditions that must be met. You can’t actually visit Cuba as a tourist. I know that sounds confusing but it’s actually not as complicated as it sounds. You really need just five things in order to travel to Cuba:
- A passport that is valid for at least 6 months past your trip
- A valid reason to travel there
- A Cuba Tourist Card
- Customs Declaration form
- Proof of medical insurance
How to visit Cuba as an American
If you’re ready to travel to Cuba then there are two ways to travel there: either independently on your own OR with a tour company.
Go to Cuba with a tour company
There are a lot of companies that offer tours to Cuba. The nice thing about going with a group is that you pretty much don’t have to worry about what to do. The tour company will do it all for you from making sure you have your documents completed to arranging for your transportation and accommodation. There’s something nice about letting someone else handle ALL of the arrangements! All you have to do is pick the right time to go and enjoy yourself!
The downside to going on a tour is that it will cost more than just going on your own. If you do decide to go to Cuba with a tour group, I recommend finding one that is a small group tour. It may cost a little more but I find that once the group reaches 20+ people, it’s not that enjoyable. You might also want to look for one that allows you to be able to have some time on your own away from the group.
Independent travel to Cuba
The second option for traveling to Cuba is to do it on your own. I know the thought of traveling to Cuba and not really knowing what to expect might be a little scary, but I can assure you that it’s not. Cuba is very safe to travel to and you will probably be surprised at how it’s not much different than traveling to any other country. Other than a few issues from being a poor country, there really isn’t anything to worry about.
The 12 Categories of Authorized Travel
Once you’ve decided to travel to Cuba, you’ll need to pick the reason why you’re going there. There are 12 categories of authorized travel you’ll have to choose from in order to visit Cuba as an American. This is basically your general license to visit. It’s pretty straightforward. You pick a reason and you’re all set to go. Here are the 12 categories under which Americans can travel to Cuba.
- Family visits
- Official Business of the U.S. Government
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, exhibitions, competitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations, research, or educational institutes
- Transmission of informational materials
- Certain authorized export transactions
The most popular and easiest option to choose is Support for the Cuban people. It’s what nearly everyone chooses. This category means that you are there to take part in activities in which the Cuban people benefit like renting a place to stay, buying a meal, or taking part in a tour of some sort. Thankfully there are a lot of things to do in Havana and around the country.
The Cuban Tourist Card
To visit Cuba as an American, you’ll need a Visa or what’s known as a Cuban Tourist Card. Again, that might sound confusing given that you can’t actually travel there for tourism reasons but that’s what it’s called. You don’t actually need to worry about this until you get to the airport.
When you arrive at your departing gate the gate agent will ask you your reason for visiting Cuba. You’ll state your reason and then pay $100. Make sure you keep these costs in mind when you’re budgeting for Cuba. You’ll be given your blank Cuban Tourist Card and you’ll need to fill it out by the time you land in Cuba.
Customs Declaration Form
One other piece of paperwork that you will need to fill out is your D’Viajeros form, or Customs Declaration Form. It’s a quick form that you fill out on your phone no more than 48 hours from departure. The form asks for your name, birthdate, gender, passport number, and the country you’re from. It will also ask where you’re going (La Habana) and the address of where you’re staying. If you’re staying at multiple locations during your visit just use the address of the first location.
It’s important to SAVE THE DOCUMENT to your phone because you will need it when you go through customs in Cuba. You can print it before you leave or save it on your phone to pull up in Cuba. When you go through customs in Havana, they will ask you to pull it up, scan the QR code, and that’s it. You won’t need the document again.
Proof of Insurance
In order to travel to Cuba, you have to show that you have health and/or travel insurance. This insurance needs to cover your medical needs, coverage for medical evacuation, and emergencies. We did not have anyone ask us for any documentation at customs but it’s a good idea to have it just in case.
The good news is that the purchase of your airline ticket with any of the U.S. airlines comes with this so there is no need to buy anything extra and it’s probably the reason why we aren’t asked to show proof of it. However, IF you plan on staying in Cuba for more than 30 days you’ll need to purchase additional insurance or may have to show proof of your own insurance. The insurance that comes with your airline ticket is only for a stay of 30 days or less.
Airlines that Fly to Cuba
Almost all major airlines fly to Cuba including American Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines. Miami (MIA) and Fort Lauderdale (FLL) have direct flights to the José Marti International Airport and make up almost 35% of the flights that go to Cuba. The flight from Miami to Havana is a quick 1 hour flight.
What you can NOT do in Cuba
As an American, there are some rules you’ll need to follow during your time in Cuba. There are certain places that Americans are not allowed to visit and things that you can’t purchase and bring back to the United States.
The biggest restriction for Americans traveling to Cuba is staying at a Cuban hotel. All major hotels in Cuba are owned by the Cuban Government and Americans are not allowed to stay there. That is according to the U.S. Government. Anything that benefits the Cuban Government is off limits and that includes hotels.
Where do you stay instead? At a casas particulares. These are places that Cubans rent out and are either entire homes or rooms in their home. This is allowed because it goes with the Support for the Cuban people. You can find a place to stay through Airbnb or other online sites. You will see the sign below everywhere throughout Cuba and those are the places where you can stay. You’ll even see people arrive in Cuba with no accommodations booked and they will knock on the doors of people with this sign asking if they have availability.
The State Department has an extensive list of places Americans are restricted from doing any business with including hotels and other companies.
Tour companies and car rentals
So the Cuban government owns and operates pretty much anything that is a big source of income. This includes tour agencies and even the car rental companies. So you have to avoid giving any money over to those places. You can of course book a tour with a local guide if you find someone that wants to show you around. This also includes riding in a classic car around Havana.
Cuban cigars and rum
Two of the biggest things Cuba is known for is their cigars and rum. While you can consume as much of it as you want while in Cuba, sadly you are not allowed to bring those items back to the United States. You are allowed to bring back a nice humidor from Cuba (holds cigars and keeps them fresher longer) if you find one you want to buy.
Other items that you cannot bring home are animals, animal products, fruits and vegetables, chemicals, and drugs. Pretty much the same things you can’t bring home from other countries.
Once you’ve returned home from Cuba, you’re supposed to keep receipts for at least 5 years of things you purchased or of what you did while in Cuba. Now, you won’t get a receipt for every little thing but if you can at least save what you do have you should be covered. If you book your casas particulares through Airbnb then you’ll have a receipt for that.
If you eat at a restaurant, take a photo of your receipt. You can also take photos of places you shopped, such as a local craft market, where you might not get a receipt for your purchase. Chances are good you will never be asked for them but just keep them for 5 years to be safe.
How to visit Cuba Summary
To visit Cuba as an American is a pretty easy process and only seems hard when you aren’t sure what to do. Here is a recap on the steps you need to take for visiting Cuba.
- Look for a flight to Cuba. You can do that with Google Flights or any airline booking website.
- Decide on your reason for visiting Cuba.
- Fill out your Customs Declaration Form no earlier than 48 hours before departure.
- Arrive at the airport and purchase your Cuban Tourist Card at the departure gate.
- Avoid Cuban Government operated businesses and don’t bring home restricted items such as cigars and rum.