US – Cuba Travel Simplified
Disclaimer: The following information is based on standard interpretations of the published US OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) rules, direct consultation with the US Treasury office, industry practices, and WoWCuba’s extensive experience work in the Cuban tourism industry since 1993, but it does not constitute legal advice. For more information or direct consultations with US authorities, we suggest reading the complete OFAC sanctions/guidelines for legal travel to Cuba and, if you still have doubts, then simply contact OFAC to request clarification. You can reference the complete Code of Federal Regulations online including the specific rules for each of the numbered regulations. The specific Federal Register regulations for the November 2018 modifications include, in some cases, helpful examples for some of the new compliance requirements.
Are you considering traveling to Cuba from the US, but are confused about the conflicting information you’re finding on the subject these days? You’re not alone. Despite general confusion and misconceptions following rule changes announced in November 2017, there are still 12 legal general license categories that don’t require Americans to apply for government permission in advance. Of those categories, only the educational (non-academic) people to people one requires you to travel as part of a supervised group. The other 11 legal general licensed Cuba travel categories can still be undertaken by individual travelers without a chaperone. And the educational (for credit) license can even be used on an independent basis by faculty and staff to research and prepare for student trips. There are also specific license categories (not paperless or self-certifying), but they require a more complex and bureaucratic approval process as described in the OFAC guidelines. Travel for tourism purposes continues to be prohibited under current US law. There are, of course, US travelers who still disregard that regulation and travel to Cuba via a third country on an unlicensed basis, but that practice has been going on for years as many of you are probably already aware, and is not the focus of this article. If considering Unlicensed Travel to Cuba, you can of course read more on that here. The Cuba Sanctions all basically tie into any financial transactions travelers engage in relating to that travel and the latest modifications are clearly a move to channel funds away from Cuban military or intelligence organizations (known as the “Restricted Entities”). US financial institutions rely on their customers statements regarding transactions and aren’t required to independently verify compliance unless they know or have reason to believe that the transaction isn’t authorized. Licensed independent travelers to Cuba must retain records of their Cuba-related purchases and itineraries for at least five years. Individuals traveling under the amended educational group people to people licenses can rely on the sponsoring organization to maintain records indicating their compliance with that license’s requirements.
Full-time schedule: is generally understood to be ~ 6 hours/weekday.
Person subject to U.S. jurisdiction or Person subject to the jurisdiction of the United States:
Per §515.329 these terms include:
(a) Any individual, wherever located, who is a citizen or resident of the United States;
(b) Any person within the United States as defined in §515.330;
(c) Any corporation, partnership, association, or other organization organized under the laws of the United States or of any State, territory, possession, or district of the United States; and
(d) Any corporation, partnership, association, or other organization, wherever organized or doing business, that is owned or controlled by persons specified in paragraphs (a) or (c) of this section.
Restricted Entities: As of November 9, 2017, the US is trying to channel US visitors away from Cuban entities which are controlled or directly benefit the Cuban military, intelligence or security services/personnel. The complete list of those Ministries, Holding Companies, Hotels, Marinas, Tourist Agencies and more is here. Take note that the hotels on the restricted list are limited only to those owned by the Gaviota and Habaguanex chains. There are, of course, a multitude of other hotels or private accommodation installations to choose from when planning legal Cuba travel. While Gaviota operates a handful of marinas in Cuba, the majority of nautical services/marinas are operated by Marlin and fully available for the enjoyment of US travelers.
Travel Service Providers: OFAC no longer issues specific licenses to US travel agencies. Neither are US travelers restricted to using travel agents or airlines based or incorporated in the US to make their legal Cuba travel arrangements. Any travel agent or airline in the USA or abroad may be used for these transactions. The new US limitation on educational group people to people travel requires that the organization sponsoring the travel (not necessarily the travel agency itself) must be a person subject to US jurisdiction and send a trip chaperone (also subject to US jurisdiction) to accompany the trip and ensure trip compliance. According to the Treasury, “There is no prohibition against US persons using 3rd country entities to make travel arrangements, however US persons must comply with one of the general licenses and in the process of making payments be ready to inform any of the banks involved in that payment of the general license they fall under.” So a US educational facility is free to contract a Canadian agency to deliver its group people to people Cuba travel providing the group trip is accompanied by a tour leader subject to US jurisdiction (not necessarily under the employ of the Canadian agency). A travel company incorporated in Canada can arrange not only legal group people to people trips, but legal travel to Cuba in any category for US travelers. WoWCuba is unique in that while we are a Canadian company, our principals are also US nationals, subject to US jurisdiction, and therefore qualified under US laws to additionally act as tour leaders on any legal US group people to people trips to Cuba requiring chaperones.
Licensed Travel Categories
First and foremost, if one or more elements of your Cuba travel (such as a hotel, or airline ticket) were booked prior to June 16, 2017, then your travel falls under the former (more flexible) Obama rules and some of the information here won’t apply.
The current 12 general categories of US-authorized travel (that don’t require you to apply in advance for a specific license) include: family visits; support for the Cuban people; educational activities; journalistic activity; humanitarian projects; professional research and professional meetings; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; exportation, importation or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions. Following are some further tips on some of the more popular categories for US travelers. Note that you can read full details on all the license numbers referenced below in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. The Federal Register Rules & Regulations updates can also provide further clarifications and, sometimes, examples for categories. A Resource Center on Cuba Sanctions will have other relevant links you can explore for any further clarification you may require.
Family visits §515.561 Visiting a relative or family member in Cuba, or the relative of someone you share a common dwelling with as family. Read more on companions, but do take note that the rule states that “an entire group does not qualify for the general license in paragraph (a) of this section merely because some members of the group qualify individually”. The Sept. 21, 2015 rule adjustments allow families (by blood or household) to travel together as long as one member qualifies under a general license for Professional Research, Journalistic/Educational/Religious Activities or Humanitarian Projects. But if you’re not traveling as family (i.e. if you’re traveling with friends), then each individual member of your travel party (even minors) must qualify for a general license on his/her own.
Educational activities §515.565a applies to academic research specifically relating to Cuba for a graduate or undergraduate degree (for credit courses). This category comprises a dozen different potential activities and is intended for college, university and secondary school faculty school, staff, students & chaperones. As noted above, the educational license can be used on an independent basis by faculty and staff to research and prepare for student trips. §515.565b is for non-academic group people to people travel exchanges accompanied by a chaperone (subject to US jurisdiction) assigned by the organization organizing the travel. According to the US Treasury, “the travel service provider and the US organization supervising travel are often [but not always] different entities”. The premise of the category is for the “purpose of engaging, while in Cuba, in a full-time schedule of activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities”. WoWCuba urges US travelers to ignore the directive re: independence from Cuban authorities (which could be construed locally as subversion) and focus rather on enhanced contact with the Cuban people & support of civil society for itinerary compliance. If you are taking part in a group people to people trip, you can rely on the entity sponsoring the travel to satisfy your recordkeeping requirements.
Support for the Cuban people §515.574 covers activities of individuals, human rights organizations & NGO’s that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba when travelers engage in a full-time schedule of activities (see above for definition of “full time”) that enhance contact with Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, and result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. If you hope to keep yourself in their good graces while traveling in Cuba, we’d of course suggest not trying to actively promote Cubans’ independence from Cuban authorities! But the other premises of this license shouldn’t be hard to undertake and satisfy. While most are still misinterpreting the rules of this category, wrongly assuming travelers are required to stay exclusively at private Cuban residences (casa particulares or AirBnB’s), that’s not the case. We’ve consulted with the US Treasury and they state that, “Private home stays are not obligatory for compliance with the 515.574 GL”. Stays at hotels not on the restricted entities list are fully permissible. License category compliance is a result of engaging in full time activities per the license description. Supporting the private sector can also include dining at privately-owned restaurants (paladares) and shopping at privately-owned small businesses (cuentapropistas).
Read more on WoWCuba’s suggested ideas for category compliance here.
Journalistic activity §515.563 Full-time journalistic activities for journalists employed by news reporting organizations or supporting broadcast or technical personnel or freelance journalists working on a journalistic project with documented previous experience. Free/recreational time should not exceed the full-time schedule for the activities to be undertaken for license compliance.
Humanitarian projects §515.575 Full-time schedule should include one or more of the following areas: “Medical and health-related projects; construction projects intended to benefit legitimately independent civil society groups; disaster preparedness, relief, and response; historical preservation; environmental projects; projects involving formal or non-formal educational training, within Cuba or off-island, on the following topics: Entrepreneurship and business, civil education, journalism, advocacy and organizing, adult literacy, or vocational skills; community-based grassroots projects; projects suitable to the development of small-scale private enterprise; projects that are related to agricultural and rural development that promote independent activity; microfinancing projects, except for loans, extensions of credit, or other financing prohibited by §515.208; and projects to meet basic human needs.”
Professional research and professional meetings §515.564 Professional research or attending professional meetings relating directly to your profession, area of expertise, or professional background, or area of expertise. Some travelers come to make documentary films, for example. Providing “it is a vehicle for presentation of the research conducted pursuant to this section”, making a documentary film in Cuba would qualify for this license category. Attending conferences, providing “the purpose of the meeting or conference directly relates to the traveler’s profession, professional background, or area of expertise, including area of graduate-level full-time study” would also result in category compliance. “For a traveler organizing a professional meeting or conference on behalf of an entity, either the traveler’s profession must be related to the organization of professional meetings or conferences or the traveler must be an employee or contractor of an entity that is organizing the professional meeting or conference”.
Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes §515.576 For this you’re your organization must have an “established interest in international relations to collect information related to Cuba for noncommercial purposes”.
Religious activities §515.566 Religious organizations, and their members and staff engaging in a full-time schedule of religious activities while in Cuba. Do take note of the restrictions on financial and material donations.
Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions §515.567
For amateur and semi-professional international sports federation competitions conditions include requirements that “the athletic competition in Cuba is held under the auspices of the international sports federation for the relevant sport; the U.S. participants in the athletic competition are selected by the U.S. federation for the relevant sport; and the competition is open for attendance, and in relevant situations, participation, by the Cuban public.
For public performances, clinics, workshops, other athletic or non-athletic competitions, and exhibitions conditions include that the event is open for attendance, and in relevant situations participation, by the Cuban public.
Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, & certain intergovernmental organizations §515.562
Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials §515.545
Certain authorized export transactions §515.533
US Insurance Companies offer their global health, life or travel insurance policy coverage to licensed US travelers to Cuba. They require travelers to sign an affidavit indicating their Cuba travel license category in order to purchase the service.
Licensed or Unlicensed travelers
Medical insurance is available upon arrival in Cuba from Asistur or ESEN (websites in Spanish only). Generally speaking, for anyone under 70, insurance cost approximately $3 CUC per day. For people over 70 the charge is approximately $5 CUC per day. Asistur will require name, passport number and arrival/departure dates. Upon arrival in Cuba there is an airport office/desk where you can complete these arrangements prior to proceeding through Immigration. Alternatively, both companies have provincial office locations which you will find listed on their websites.
For Cuban Customs information in English, please visit Aduana General de la Republica de Cuba. US Customs Import Limitations for purchases from Cuba: Authorized U.S. travelers to Cuba can import up to $400 worth of goods acquired in Cuba for personal use. Alcohol or tobacco products have a $100 limit.
US citizens and non-Cuban residents of the US traveling to Cuba for non-commercial/unofficial purposes qualify for a 30-day visitor visa, extendable locally in Cuba with Immigration for another 30 days (with presentation of corresponding stamps purchased from the bank in Cuba). Some airlines and charter companies include the visitor visas in ticket prices; in other cases they are available for approximately $50 USD/traveler at the gateway airport (the last airport before leaving the US to Cuba). Check with your airline for specific fees and to determine if a credit card is required for the visa purchase. Visitors whose travel initiated in the US will travel on a pink Visa. The green Visa is not valid for travel from the US to Cuba. If seeking a business, press or student visa, you should contact the nearest Cuban Consulate or the Cuban Embassy in Washington as far in advance of planned travel as possible for details. Keep your visa (with your passport) for the duration of your Cuba travel. Its presentation is required on entry and exit from Cuba.
Although authorized US Travelers to Cuba are technically now allowed to use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba, with the exception of the Stonegate Bank in Florida, US banks largely haven’t yet made that possible. Additionally, only if you’re
a) undertaking travel in one of the authorized license categories
b) 100% certain that your trip content is compliant with your chosen category
c) not employing the services of an entity on the US Treasury’s Restricted Entity List
should you even consider undertaking traceable financial transactions in Cuban territory. While we hope that the debit card system will eventually function with North American Interact cards, that system is not operational at this time. American Express Travelers cheques are reportedly able to be cashed at the BFI (Banco Financiero Internacional) in Havana. WoWCuba/MacQueen’s Island Tours offers an emergency cash advance service to our clients in Havana by processing your U.S. credit card in Canada. Contact Kristen in our Havana office if required. View our CUC Information page for further details.
Affidavits & Paperwork
Travel Affidavit: Independent US travelers to Cuba simply print/complete/sign the do-it-yourself form, take it with them while traveling in the event US authorities request evidence of the purpose of their trip, and then keep their copy on file for 5 years along with their detailed itinerary and any receipts corroborating their licensed travel category compliance. If traveling to Cuba under a general license, upon returning to the US, in the Countries Visited section of the Customs/Immigration form you can freely declare “Cuba (under general license xxx.xxx)” without fear of reprisal. Having a copy of your affidavit can be helpful on the off chance that a US Immigration official requests one. Download a sample general license affidavit for individual travel categories.
Download WoWCuba / MacQueen’s Island Tours affidavit for group people to people exchanges led by our US-born company representatives (cycling trips are included under this umbrella). WoWCuba travelers originating in the USA complete this document in advance and forward to our Canadian office. We take care of filing the affidavit and all recordkeeping requirements on behalf travelers taking part in any group people to people trips led by our company as the sponsoring entity, or group people to people trips that we arrange on behalf of US organizations sending their own chaperone for compliance.