In May of this year I returned from a 10 day trip to Cuba in which I had the opportunity to explore Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Havana. Upon my return, rather than having my family and friends ask about the food, the people and the culture, I immediately got questions like, “how did you get into Cuba?”, and “did they stamp you passport?”, and “was it illegal?” The short answers to these were: via Mexico, Yes, and No.
On January 16, 2015 President Obama greatly expanded legal Cuba travel opportunities for Americans by issuing regulations that allow them to visit Cuba without applying for a license, as stated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The regulations meant Americans could legally travel to Cuba so long as they fell within one of the approved categories:
- Family visits
- Official government business
- Professional research and meetings
- Educational activities and people to people exchange
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, exhibitions and athletic competitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research for educational institutes
- Exporting or importing information or information materials
- Travel related to some authorized export transactions
While direct flights to Cuba from the United States have been around for years, to fly on one you’ll most likely need to be a part of a designated tour group or have documentation showing family visitation or for be traveling for business purposes. If you’re like me and prefer not to travel within a tour group, you can simply connect to Cuba via another country, such as Mexico, Canada, Jamaica, The Bahamas, etc. I took Aeroméxico from Chicago to Mexico City, and then from Mexico City took Cubana de Aviacíon to Cuba. Ignore what you read about Cubana’s safety record as the world’s most unsafe airline – our flights were incredibly safe, smooth and timely.
Below are 7 important tips for first time travelers to Cuba:
TIP 1: OBTAINING A CUBAN VISA
American’s are required to have a visa to visit Cuba; however, don’t stress as it’s incredibly easy to get one. At the check-in counter for your flight to Cuba, there should be someone who is handing out the visa form for $20USD, you can simply purchase it there and fill it out – it’s that simple and I’ve read that most major airports offer the visa form there so don’t worry if you’re not traveling via Mexico City.
TIP 2: IT’S OKAY TO GET YOUR PASSPORT STAMPED
Most American’s traveling to Cuba are fearful of getting their passport stamped because it has for so long been illegal for us to visit the island. Interestingly, you may find yourself in more trouble if you don’t get it stamped. When you land in your connecting country (i.e Canada, Mexico) you’ll most likely get an entry stamp. Given that you are then traveling onward to Cuba and then back to your connecting country, you will then get another entry stamp that could prompt questions from the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials given that there won’t be a second country visited and stamped on your passport. Nowadays, you’re safer telling the truth and getting your passport stamped, like I did!
TIP 3: BRING A TON OF USD
Not once did I use a credit card, ATM, or even looked at my debit/credit cards while in Cuba because right now the ability to use them doesn’t exist. Bring a bunch of USD and exchange it upon arrival in the airport or throughout your visit to the island. I found may places and locals who were willing to exchange our USD for CUC, which is the tourist currency. Sometimes you’ll get CUP in return for smaller purchases, which is the currency of the locals.
TIP 4: PLAN AHEAD
There is limited to no internet access in Cuba so be sure to plan ahead if you’re meeting people, need to confirm a reservation, or simply tell family and friends they won’t hear from you for awhile. In our entire trip to Cuba we stumbled upon only two internet cafes which sold usage by the minute – way too expensive for a backpacker!
TIP 5: DON’T WORRY ABOUT FINDING ACCOMMODATIONS IN ADVANCE
Hotels are limited in Cuba so you’ll most likely be staying in a Casa Particular, which is essentially a home-stay in a local Cuban family’s home. You’ll identify a house that is a Casa Particular by a funny anchor-looking sign outside, which is required by the government. It costs about $25-$40USD a night, sometimes including breakfast, which is a killer deal compared to the expensive hotels. Secondly, all of the rooms we stayed in offered us a private area so it really felt like we had our own home – much better than a hotel!
TIP 6: CUBA NO LONGER CHARGES AN EXIT FEE
Ignore what you read about needing to pay a $25USD exit fee to leave Cuba, they stopped doing this in May.
TIP 7: TELL THE TRUTH AND HAVE AN ITINERARY HANDY
Now that you’ve gotten your passport stamped in Cuba, you need to tell CBP officials that you had visited Cuba on your vacation. Not doing so could result in seizure of your passport, travel restrictions and hefty fines. My travel companion and I did our research in advanced and fell into the ‘educational activities and people to people exchange’ category. This definition means you can travel as an individual throughout Cuba so long as you are engaging in educational activities and people to people cultural exchange. Luckily, Cuba is jam packed full of UNESCO World Heritage sites so without even planning on it you’ll have visited a handful. Just make an itinerary that exhibits this type of agenda, show it to the CBP officer if he asks, and you’ll be just fine.
That’s it! As a quick refresh: you’ll obtain a visa in the airport prior to your departure, don’t worry about getting your passport stamped, bring lots of cash, plan ahead due to limited internet, you can find accommodations upon arrival, don’t pay an exit fee in Cuba, and tell the truth to the CBP!
Enjoy the journey!