In June of 2017, President Trump announced that his administration would take a tough stance against Cuba’s socialist government. That meant a reversal of the course charted by Obama, who had loosened longstanding restrictions on tourism and trade.
Just one year after it had been lifted, it seemed like the Cuban travel ban was coming back. Bummer.
But it didn’t really work out that way. Trump did repeal Obama’s lax travel rules, but he’s since replaced with them with almost equally lax rules of his own. Three U.S. airlines now offer direct flights to the Pearl of the Antilles, and thousands of estadounidenses visit the island each year.
The process is pretty easy, but it is still a process. If you want to visit Cuba as a U.S. citizen (without breaking the law), here’s what you need to know:
Travel for The People
To get a Cuban travel visa, your trip must fall under one of the 12 categories of travel approved by the State Department. As a recreational traveler, that means you’ll most likely be traveling “In support of the Cuban people.”
According to the regulations, travelers in this category “engage in a full-time schedule of activities that result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba and that enhance contact with the Cuban people, support of civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”
In short, your trip has be about more than just getting a tan—you’ll be there as an unofficial ambassador of the U.S. and of the capitalist way of life.
When you book your ticket, your airline should direct you to a third party that processes your visa. They’ll ask you what category your trip falls under, a few basic questions, and will charge you an $85 fee. Then, usually within a week, you’ll get your visa. Easy.
Make an itinerary
No traveler I’ve spoken with has actually been asked to provide a travel plan, but having one is technically required by the State Department.
As you read above, travelers are supposed to “engage in a full-time schedule” of meaningful cultural exchange. So before you apply for your visa, draw up a detailed travel plan that doesn’t just include five days of laying around on the beach drinking mojitos.
Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba are still tense, to say the least. So U.S. travelers are forbidden from providing aid directly to the Cuban government or military.
In a one-party socialist state, where many businesses are basically owned and operated by the government, that can be sort of tricky. It means U.S. travelers must avoid pretty much every hotel on the island, staying instead in privately-operated homestays called casas particulares.
A full list of off-limits businesses is available here. You’ll definitely want to read it before you go—it includes even a few of the popular souvenir shops in Old Havana.
Keep your receipts
Travelers to Cuba are required to keep all of their receipts for a full five years after their trip. This, presumably, is so you can reconstruct your itinerary for authorities if they come to suspect you of less-than-American activities during or after your trip.
Unfortunately, receipts are kind of hard to come by in Cuba. Many privately-operated businesses are unofficial operations, and thus don’t issue printed receipts. The only businesses that do consistently offer receipts are the very government-owned entities we are forbidden to do business with.
So… do your best with the one. It’s a weird rule, but it is a rule.
Go ahead and get cigars
Obama lifted the restrictions on importing Cuban alcohol and tobacco in 2016, and those restrictions have not been reimposed. So go nuts with the cigars.
Have any questions or comments about travel in Cuba? Email [email protected] to let us know.