Can Americans travel to Cuba? Short Answer: Yes! For the longer answer, here’s nearly 3,000 words on why and how:
You know, it’s kind of funny because I was always under the assumption that the answer to “Can Americans travel to Cuba?” was a resounding, “No.” I’d only vaguely heard of people going from Mexico and just asking immigration not to stamp their passports, but I don’t know that I’d ever want to risk getting in trouble with the American government – mostly because the sheer amount of bureaucracy and paperwork would drive me insane.
I do remember the brief, halcyon period when it seemed like travel was doable and that was when Obama was normalizing relations. Back then, every U.S. travel and fashion blogger I knew planned a trip. Of course, I was living in Korea, and it seemed highly impractical to use my vacation days on a trip to the Caribbean, so any desire I had to visit was shelved.
Of course, all this normalization ended pretty quickly around the same time I returned home (*cough*). Then the pandemic hit, and I was in Vietnam for the foreseeable future. Truly, the only time I considered visiting Cuba was when I read a book set there.
Around a year ago, though, I received a message from a company called Cuban Adventures inviting me on their 8 Day Original Tour for Women. I was immediately curious how this would be possible. That’s when I realized visiting Cuba as an American is both entirely legal and much easier than I would have expected.
Yes, there are a few hoops to jump, but it’s nothing crazy or out of the ordinary for anyone who travels. In fact, if you’re reading this from one of the countries that doesn’t have our passport privilege, you’re going to roll your eyes hard at this whole post.
Anyway, now that I’ve visited and come back in one piece with no awkward airport question, here’s what to expect if you’re an American who wants to visit Cuba!
Can Americans Travel to Cuba? (YES)
Before I dive into the steps to follow, I want to make one thing clear. The reason there are Cuba travel restrictions for Americans is not because of the Cuban government but the American one. This goes all the way back to the 1960s and is a whole 20th century history lesson I won’t go into.
This is an important distinction because it’s not like Cubans don’t want visitors and tourists; it’s just that a bunch of politicking and whatnot that have added all these extra steps.
1. Figure out HOW you’re going to visit
Unfortunately, you can’t just hop on a plane spontaneously and set off for a vacation in Cuba. My Canadian friends are probably laughing at this because they absolutely see vacationing here like we see vacationing in Hawaii, Cancun, or Florida.
For Americans, you need to have one of the following reasons:
- Family visits
- Official government business
- Journalistic activities
- Professional research or professional meetings
- Educational academic activities
- People-to-people exchanges (newly reinstated option)
- Religious activities
- Public performance, clinics, workshops, athletic or other competitions and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Travel related to certain authorized export transactions
As you might guess, “going to an all-inclusive resort and sunbathing for a week” does not fall under any of these categories. However, the two big ones that the normal American can use is “People to People (P2P)” and “Support for the Cuban People (SCP).”
P2P was actually banned for a bit by the last administration but brought back in 2022. My tour has a good breakdown of the differences and recommended I list SCP.
Frankly, if this is your first time visiting, go with a tour company. I know, I know I also bristle at multi-day group tours, but I think if you find a good one that gives you enough flexibility, it takes out the stress of figuring out the details. Proper tours also ensure you’re not breaking any U.S. rules unwittingly!
My Tour with Cuban Adventures
Please note my tour was gifted, but all over expenses were out of pocket
Cuban Adventures created their 8-Day Original Tour for Women to allow for flexibility and focus on women empowerment and female entrepreneurs in Cuba. (Believe it or not, this is something that has a long way to go, and even my customs agent was surprised when I told him about our tour!)
They handle the stress of transportation, food, and accommodation while providing a guide to, well, guide you through the country. Our leader, Yummet, gave us historical context as well as arranged our meals and provided itinerary recommendations. Honestly, if you book this tour, request her – she’s the best! As people who normally don’t like organized multi-day tours, both my friend, Millette, and I had a seriously amazing time.
2. Book your flight
There are a few airlines that fly to Cuba, and I opted for American Airlines because I have points with them, and they fly out of Philly. I believe you can really only book Cuba flights directly on airline sites but don’t take my word for it. I had a short layover in Miami both ways.
3. Figure out accommodation
So because I was on a tour, Cuban Adventures took care of this. But if you’re doing this on your own, know that you cannot just book whatever accommodation you want. We’re only allowed to stay in what’s known as casas particulares, or privately-run guesthouses.
It more or less feels like you’re staying with a family but in your own private room. Because casas have to meet certain regulations, you’re guaranteed a nice experience regardless of the stay! If you click on that link above, it goes into what standards they have to meet.
Booking wise, you can try contacting places directly but otherwise I’ve only seem some listed on Airbnb and Hotels.com. This is partly why I recommend doing a tour for at least your first visit – they’ll have vetted the casas for quality and will obviously know if you’re in the clear to stay.
The U.S. government has an entire list of prohibited accommodations if you want to read through them. For a bit of a laugh, I was looking at my friend, Alyshia’s Cuba stories as she’s one of the aforementioned Canadians who vacation here frequently. Every single place she’s stayed is on this list for me. Crazy, huh?
4. Get your Cuban visa travel card
Another thing you’ll need is a Cuban visa travel card (República de Cuba Visa – Tarjeta del Turista). This will cost around $100 USD and can be done beforehand or at the airport right before you go (so for me it would’ve been in Miami, not Philly). My layover was only like 40 minutes, so I got mine ahead of time just, and it came in a matter of days. If you fly American Airlines, this is the link for their travel card specifically.
If you do get your card in the airport, just know that the Cuba Travel Ready Desk is located RIGHT at your gate. I imagine it takes minutes as long as there’s no line, so if you haven’t gotten your card ahead of time, don’t stress.
5. Fill out an affidavit
This is basically you promising the U.S. government that you’re going to support the Cuban people. I think it’s also called an OFAC license. This was something Cuban Adventures sent me to sign, but if you’re not with a group, I think this is the page you want.
6. Make sure you have proof of travel and medical insurance
This is for any American not flying from a U.S. destination. Make sure you have some sort of robust travel insurance that you can show on arrival or Cuba will have you buy theirs.
**Anyone flying from a U.S. airport will already have this included in their ticket so no need to worry.
7. Money, money, money
Know that you cannot use American debit or credit cards in Cuba, so you should bring all the cash you need. I’ll go into this in my Cuba travel tips post, but in general I recommend bringing around $100/day for however long you’ll be here.
This will ensure you’re on the safe side, have more than enough for meals and souvenir shopping, and allow you to tip generously, which you’ll feel more than inclined to do. Keep the bills between $5, $10, and $20 and no coins. If you can easily get euros, have maybe 100-200 EUR too but I found most people preferred dollars anyway and it was a 1 EUR = 1 USD rate.
Don’t exchange all your money into pesos (CUP) and don’t exchange any at the airport. Just wait until you get to your casa and exchange maybe $100-$200 USD. When I was there, the exchange was $1 USD = 120 CUP at the official money exchange centers (Cadeca) but was $1 USD = 150-165 CUP at casas, businesses, and restaurants.
8. Within 48 hours of your flight, fill out a D’Viajeros form
D’viajeros is something required by the Cuban government and reminds me a bit of the K-ESTA program Korea introduced post-COVID. It’s to just help facilitate getting through the airport in Cuba and is basically a QR-code you show.
Be sure to screenshot your QR code in case they don’t email you for whatever reason.
9. To stay connected (optional)
WiFi in Cuba is pretty tricky and nonexistent. You essentially have to buy wifi-cards that last an hour and find public wifi spots to connect to (you’ll know you have one when WIFI-ETECSA pops up as on the wifi list).
However, the SIM card situation is actually pretty good considering it’s a fairly new thing here. There’s a tourist SIM card called CubacelTur with ETECSA, Cuba’s only cell service. It’ll give you 6GB of data good for 30 days.
Order it online ahead of time. If you wait to get it in Cuba, chances are ETECSA locations will be sold out. On top of that, you’ll probably have to wait in a long line outside to even get to that point. However, if you book online ahead of time, you can reserve yourself a SIM card to pick up at the airport. Once you get it activated, it should begin the next day at noon (though you might get it to work sporadically beforehand).
P.S. 6GB isn’t much, so make sure you turn off all your apps! Millette accidentally had her iPhotos switched onto back-up to her iCloud and it ate up all her data in like a day.
P.P.S. If you have an iPhone, sometimes they have issues working with the SIM.
10. Getting from the airport to Cuba
Ok, I’m going to walk you through what to expect at the airport just to help alleviate any concerns. Again, just making a note that my whole experience is with American Airlines and going from Philly – Miami – Havana and back.
For check-in, know that you cannot check-in online like other flights. You have to go to the desk in person. There they’ll check you in, ask why you’re going to Cuba (always – support Cuban people), and make sure your D’Viajeros form is filled in. I believe the computer makes them input a number or something that’s on the form.
From there it’s all normal check-in and TSA things until you fly out. I will say if you’re in the Miami airport or wherever your last airport before Cuba is, make sure you download everything you want downloaded and grab that last Starbucks chai latte. My flight was delayed 2 1/2 hours after we boarded, and I was wishing I’d just stopped off to get my last iced chai latte fix.
Jose Martí Airport
Once you land in Cuba, it’s pretty normal. You’ll disembark and then follow the signs to go through customs, have your things scanned, and then proceed to the baggage claim area. Before you actually see someone at the customs desk, you’ll present your QR code to someone sitting at another desk who will scan it. Customs will stamp your visa travel card, and then you’re through. I believe everyone gets free 30-minutes of wifi in the airport. However, I was so ready to be out and in my casa that I just sped through.
If you’re with a tour, they should absolutely have a driver set-up for you and, of course, a bunch of things to do in case you don’t. Otherwise, taxis should be around $30 USD to get into Havana and take about ~30 minutes. For those that do the taxi route, have a map ready to show them where to drop you off. No one is plugging in an address into Google Maps.
11. During your trip
There’s not too much to worry about on your trip. If you want to be extra cautious, just tell people you’re Canadian. Heck, if you’re in a silly, goofy mood just spit out any random country. I kept telling people I was Mexican because that’s the closest Spanish accent I have. Weirdly, no one was skeptical?
Otherwise the main things to remember are:
- Don’t check your bank accounts – they might block you.
- None of your ATM or credit cards will work, so bring everything you need in cash (Like I said – $100/day is a safe bet)
- If you send any payments ahead of time via Paypal, etc, never put Cuba or Havana in the name to avoid it getting flagged and blocked. My friend had hers blocked for like 10 days!
- Don’t spend money at government-owned shops, businesses, or hotels. It’s easy to figure out what those are (aka anything that takes credit card), but a guide will always know if you’re unsure.
12. Keep record of your trip
One thing to note is that you want to keep record of your trip. Just a small notebook or something to keep an itinerary of where you ate, where you stayed, and who you interacted with. Basically something to prove that you were supporting Cuban people and not just laying on the beach and getting cocktails from a resort bar the whole time. If you want to get a little fancy, I brought my travel journal from Promptly to use.
13. Coming home and bringing back souvenirs
This was the part I was the most unsure about because we’d just heard so many clashing accounts on what to expect. It was surprisingly a million times easier than I could have anticipated, and I even managed to squeeze in my Global Entry interview before we boarded our Miami – Philly flight.
Jose Martí Airport
Getting through the airport in Cuba is normal. We were in Terminal 3, which is supposed to be the newer one. The money thing differs based on who you talk to but when we went to get coffee at one of the restaurants, they didn’t take pesos but did take USD. If you have to use the bathroom, remember to have some pesos or USD to give to the bathroom attendant, and know that there’s no toilet seat, so you’ll have to squat and hover.
WiFi-wise, you get 30 minutes but I couldn’t get it to recognize my passport number. They do have normal WIFI-ETECSA available if you have any leftover wifi cards, though.
Once you land in the U.S. (in our case Miami), you’ll disembark and go through customs. Obviously, customs depends on who your border agent is. Luckily, ours was pretty friendly. Here’s what he asked, and what we answered:
- Him: Where are you coming from?
- Us: Cuba
- Him: Why were you in Cuba?
- Us: To support the Cuban people.
- Him: How did you support the Cuban people?
- Us: We stayed at privately owned casas particulares, only ate at privately-owned restaurants, and visited privately-owned businesses. We also donated where we could. (At this point we went off to discuss how our tour was particularly geared towards women-owned businesses and entrepreneurs and I told him about how our Viñales guide was one of two women with the job.)
- Him: Are you bringing back anything?
- Us: Yes, we shopped. We brought back some dresses (he was also surprised at this lol) and coffee, and cigars. Now, I just want to make it clear we know we can’t just buy any cigars but these cigars are artisanal and we brought them directly from the farmer. They’re not any of the government brands.
- Him: Cool, alright, welcome back to the U.S.
Bada boom! I was ready to put up an argument over the cigars but there was no need. Just know that you cannot bring back rum or cigars from the government-owned companies (i.e. Havana Club or any of the famous brands). If you bring back art, the artist should give you a little receipt that you can show customs too. (Smaller ones from street artists don’t require the receipt).
FAQ for Travel to Cuba
They can go! They just can’t go as easily as other countries and it requires some paperwork. Nothing too crazy though.
They can legally go under one of the approved categories of travel. Most go under People to People or Support for Cuban People.
Not at all!! It’s actually one of the safer countries I’ve been to.
I think that pretty much answers everything I can think of related to “Can Americans travel to Cuba?” My last bit of advice is to look and read blog posts that are as current as possible. Things have changed and reversed and changed again drastically in the last 5-7 years, and now that I’ve been, I can say anything written in 2016/17 is insanely out of date!
I’ll do my best to keep these posts updated, but it’s always better to hear from someone who’s just been. Cuban Adventures has a Facebook group if you’re going on one of their tours, so I read through those replies before I went. If you have any questions, let me know!!
For more on Cuba travel, read these next:
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