CUBA. The mysterious Caribbean nation that Americans have been forbidden to visit for over half a century. Cuba has long been on my travel bucket list and when President Obama eased travel restrictions on US citizens and direct flights resumed, I immediately booked a long weekend in Havana! And, it was nothing short of magical! Havana is truly stuck in the past. My visit was interesting, thought provoking, and filled with meeting some of the nicest people that I have ever encountered abroad, but that will be the subject of another post. This post is all about how to get you to and back from Cuba legally from the US right now!
US RESTRICTIONS ON TRAVEL TO CUBA. If you follow the Cuban embargo saga at all, you know that President Obama began loosening travel restrictions and restoring a formal relationship with Cuba in 2011. Last year, those restrictions loosened further; Americans no longer need to apply for a specific Visa from the US prior to traveling to Cuba as long as the visit fits into one of 12 categories of accepted travel, and certain US airlines now fly directly to Cuba. The list of the 12 approved travel categories can be found here. Since our visit fit into a category of accepted travel, we did not obtain special permission from the US government for our trip. We simply certified that our trip fit into a category of accepted travel by clicking a box when we booked our plane ticket, and again when we booked our AirBnB. Keep in mind that not a single one of the accepted travel categories allow for travel to Cuba for vacation purposes (i.e. you still cannot travel to Cuba to lay on a beach at an all inclusive resort and drink mojitos all day), but you can go for cultural purposes, including visiting Havana’s museums!
US AIRPORT: Checking in for our flight to Havana at Newark International Airport could not have been easier and was nothing out of the ordinary. Upon arrival at Newark’s Terminal C, we were directed to a secluded check-in area specifically for travelers to Cuba. Before check-in, we purchased our Cuban Visa (see below) at $75.00 per person and checked in as we would for any other international flight. No one from United asked why we were traveling to Cuba, although our boarding passes did receive a cute “Cuba Travel Ready” sticker! Security was totally standard and our destination was not once mentioned.
THE CUBAN TRAVEL VISA: Yes, you do need a Cuban Visa to travel to Cuba as an American. The Cuban Visa is a piece of paper about the size of a passport, perforated down the middle with identical sides. The traveler completes each side with basic information, including name, nationality, birthdate, reason for travel, etc., and provides one to Cuban immigration on arrival and one to Cuban immigration on departure. As with most countries, most U.S. airlines sell Cuban Visas at the airport upon check in. United does this at Newark. The cost of the Visa is $75 a person, and the fee must be paid via credit card. There appear to be options to buy a Cuban Visa online and have it shipped directly to you in a few weeks, but that seems like a lot of work. I recommend calling your airline to confirm that it sells Cuban Visas at the airport, the cost, and the required form of payment. If you do not have a Cuban Visa prior to landing in Cuba, it is unlikely that you can buy one at the Cuban airport (that being said, most airlines will not let you check-in without the Cuba Visa). Oh, and the Cuban Visas sold in the US are all “Tourista Visas,” which seems to conflict with the US policy of not allowing travel to Cuba solely for tourism…
NON-US HEALTH INSURANCE: Cuba requires all tourists to have valid health insurance throughout the stay in Cuba. This poses a problem for many Americans, as most American insurance policies do not work in Cuba. Some US airlines include the cost of health insurance in your ticket; others don’t. I again suggest calling your airline to confirm and obtain information on any such policy. We could not get a clear answer on whether United provided health insurance, so we each purchased a $50 insurance policy from World Nomads. It took about 5 minutes to purchase and obtain the policy. That being said, not a single person in Cuba asked for proof of travel insurance….
ARRIVAL AT THE HAVANA AIRPORT: About an hour before landing in Havana, flight attendants distributed a Cuban customs form, a Cuban health form, and a Cuban registration card. Fill these out before you deplane (and bring a pen) to avoid delays. Upon arrival in Cuba, all international flights are ushered into a small room with about ten lines to immigration. Pick the shortest one. We waited about 20 minutes before going through immigration. Immigration is one person at a time, even for families. Immigration took half of my Cuban Visa, stamped the other half, and returned it to me for departure. Immigration also takes a photograph of everyone and collects the registration card. At this time, Cuba stamps all passports, although mine was stamped so lightly you can barely read “Cuba.”
After immigration, visitors get into another line and proceed through a metal detector and luggage screener. This took about 15 minutes. After the metal detector, visitors hand the health cards to individuals dressed like nurses (no one took a second glance at the health form) and proceed to baggage (all in the same room). Our luggage came out very quickly, although I have heard this is not often the case…. Upon collecting our luggage, we handed in our customs form and proceeded to find our ride! You should also consider changing your money at the airport (see below) and purchasing wifi cards so that you will have at least some internet access in Cuba (also below)!
LEAVING HAVANA AIRPORT: Our departure from Cuba was surprisingly easy! We arrived at the Havana airport a full three hours early, per everyone’s recommendation, and lined up to check-in for our United flight. United had the quickest moving check-in line of all the four airlines checking people in when we arrived. United’s check-in line took about 10 minutes (others looked to take longer). We then proceeded to immigration, which was also about a 10 minute wait. Immigration took the second half of my Cuban Tourista Visa and stamped my passport and boarding pass (if they don’t stamp both, ask…one woman on my flight almost missed the flight because her boarding pass was not stamped).
After immigration, we went through security and then waited for our flight in the very minimal departure terminal. There are a few duty free shops selling rum, cigars, and cuban tourist things and a very few snack outlets. There is also a change desk in the departure area that did not have a line – we didn’t have to use it because Dan spent all of our remaining CUCs in the duty free shop! And on that note, you can now bring back unlimited amounts of rum and cigars into the US. However, you gave to pay tax on alcohol over 1 liter per person (1.5% of the cost) and cigars over 100.
RETURNING FROM CUBA TO THE US AIRPORT: Of my entire trip, I was most nervous about returning to the US. Would we get grilled regarding our reasons for traveling to Cuba? Would they give us a hard time about our rum and cigars? Not. at. all. We disembarked our United flight as we would any other international flight. Since we have Global Entry, we proceeded to the Global Entry kiosk, completed the paperwork, and proceeded to customs. No one asked any questions about our visit to Cuba, and there were no questions about Cuba on the Global Entry screens. We did declare our eight bottles of rum (6 over the limit). Customs simply asked us what we were declaring and the cost and let us go (probably too much paperwork for a $1.50 tax). We were through immigration and customs (which included picking up our bag) in 35 minutes. SO SIMPLE.
CUBAN MONEY: While on the subject of Cuban travel necessities, Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban National Peso (CUP). CUC’s are pegged to the dollar and CUP are currently worth 25% of one CUC (or around 25 US cents). As a tourist, you will pay for everything in CUC and you may not even see a CUP during your entire stay. It is essential that you bring cash to exchange in Cuba, as neither American credit cards nor American ATM cards work in Cuba. The Havana airport has two change desks on premises, and I highly recommend changing money at the airport, especially if you are not staying at a large hotel as changing cash to CUCs in Havana is more difficult than it should be! The change desk at the Havana airport is located post-customs. Leave the building after clearing customs, turn right and re-enter the building (at times this entry is blocked off and you need to tell the guard that you need to change money). The money changing desk is just inside and there is often a line. There is apparently a second change desk on the second floor of the airport that never has a line, but we never saw that one! Note that changing US dollars to Cuban pesos anywhere in Cuba incurs a 10% tax. Euros and pounds avoid this tax.
If you must change money in Havana and not at the airport (we did successfully), you can go to an official Casa de Cambio to change your money. Lines are generally long and you must have your US passport to change money. The alternative is to go to a large hotel and change there. We did this at the famous Hotel Nacional in Havana Centro, which has two change desks. The change desk on the main floor, the “Cashier,” changed money for us one day without any questions. The second time, the Cashier refused to change our money because we were not guests at the hotel and sent us to a second change desk near the pool, who changed money for us twice without regard to whether we stayed at the hotel. However, they did require a passport. We were able to use our US passport cards – be sure to have something official!
Final note, you cannot change Cuban money back to US dollars in the United States. You must change Cuban money back to US dollars before leaving Cuba. As I mentioned, you can easily do this at the airport in the departure lounge.
WIFI IN CUBA: Wifi in Cuba is an interesting concept. Cuba has one internet service provider, ETECSA, and it obviously has a monopoly on the internet market. While wifi is available, it is not reliable nor terribly easy to find. To access the internet, you first need to purchase a wifi card, which are available at the airport at a cost of $4.50 CUC per card. Each card is good for one hour of internet service during your stay (you can log in and out). Next, you need to find a wifi spot, which are scattered throughout Havana. There are some maps, but in my experience the easiest way to find an wifi spot is to look for large crowds of people in a small area on phones and computers. This is always a wifi spot! Simply go to that area, login, and use the internet! Some large hotels also have their own internet that you can buy “if you are staying there.” We purchased an hour of internet at Hotel Nacional for $7.00 CUC (!!) . While the sign said that you had to be a guest at the hotel, no one asked any questions. Internet speed throughout Havana was decent, both in public and at the hotel. Wifi is apparently best early in the morning and late at night when not many people are using it.
CONCLUSION ON CUBA TRAVEL. Having been back from Cuba for a week now, I worried way to much about visiting Cuba. It was very easy and not really any different than traveling to any other foreign country. Having successfully gone and returned, I would go again without hesitation (assuming the laws do not change). If you are planning a trip and concerned, I am happy to answer any questions! Note that this information is only valid as of January 2017. You should certainly review the most recent regulations prior to booking a flight and/or flying!