The following is a non-exhaustive explanation of the current status of regulations surrounding travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. It is not legally binding, and we strongly encourage you to fully inform yourself by reading the complete OFAC sanctions/guidelines for legal travel to Cuba prior to making a decision on which route is best for your Cuba travel plans.
Americans can currently travel to Cuba either with an OFAC license, or unlicensed via a third country. You may be surprised to learn that a significant number of US travelers still do not do so under an OFAC Specific or General License. They instead travel to Cuba via a third country such as Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas and with very few exceptions they elect not to declare the Cuba segment of their travel upon their return.
US travelers who want to see Cuba on their own terms accept a certain level of risk of detection/investigation by US authorities when undertaking unlicensed travel to Cuba, providing the end result is an itinerary that most closely matches their travel goals, budget and preferences. They do not travel on direct commercial flights from the US to Cuba and they avoid using airlines from gateways in third countries (such as Air Canada or Aeromexico) requiring them to sign an affidavit indicating they will be undertaking licensed travel to Cuba. US regulations continue to restrict travel to Cuba for strictly tourism purposes.
Categories & Regulations
The current general categories of US-authorized travel (that don’t require you to apply in advance for a specific license) are
- family visits
- official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- journalistic activity
- professional research and professional meetings
- educational activities (group people to people trips fall under a subsection of this category)
- religious activities
- public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and 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 information materials
- certain authorized export transactions
If you carefully study the regulations there are certain license categories which provide a certain level of freedom for supporting the private sector, for example, without a lot of direct supervision from US tour leaders. The “support for the Cuban people” category is one we feel may begin to see more frequent use by independent US travelers, providing they ensure compliance with the full-time itinerary requirement within the parameters of the category. Cuban officials have not supported this category to date as their (understandable) posture is that the best and truest “support for the Cuban people” would be a removal of the US Embargo, of course. The line of thinking in Cuba is that the US has created this license category more as a subversive move, so WoWCuba strongly urges those who select it to be very careful about exactly how they propose to be compliant within the rule of Cuban law. In Example 1, we’ve replaced the disingenuous suggestion in the US Federal Register document of “volunteering with a recognized nongovernmental organization to build a school for underserved Cuban children” (this was something Cuba made a priority at the beginning of the revolution, and education continues to be one of their more successful initiatives) with an activity more likely to actually transpire and truly benefit the Cuba we know & love.
“Example 1 to §515.574: A group of friends plans to travel and maintain a full-time schedule throughout their trip by [staying at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List (see § 515.209) and volunteering with the recognized environmental organization CITMA to clean up a section of public beach in the local community, both providing a positive example in terms of environmental responsibility/community beautification, and more importantly, reducing the possibility that diseases such as dengue or zika would proliferate in the mosquito population]. In their free time, the travelers plan to rent bicycles to explore the streets of Havana and visit an art museum. The travelers’ trip would qualify for the general license because the volunteer activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba and constitute a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people and supports civil society in Cuba, and results in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.
Example 2 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, stay in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eat at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shop at privately-owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) during his or her four-day trip. While at the casa particular, the individual will have breakfast each morning with the Cuban host and engage with the Cuban host to learn about Cuban culture. In addition, the traveler will complete his or her full-time schedule by supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately-owned businesses. [WoWCuba would be pleased to provide various suggestions on worthy local collaboration in this respect]. The traveler’s activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Because the individual’s qualifying activities are not limited to staying in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) and the traveler maintains a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people, supports civil society in Cuba, and promotes the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that results in meaningful interaction between the traveler and Cuban individuals, the individual’s travel qualifies for the general license.
Example 3 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, rent a bicycle to explore the neighborhoods and beaches, and engage in brief exchanges with local beach vendors. The individual intends to stay at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List. The traveler’s trip does not qualify for this general license because none of these activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.”
Note to 515.574(a): Each person relying on the general authorization in this paragraph must retain specific records related to the authorized travel transactions. See §501.601 and §501.602 of this chapter for applicable recordkeeping and reporting requirements.
If your travel to Cuba is not approved by the U.S. (with a Specific or General License), Cuba, as a courtesy, will stamp your visa (not your passport) upon entry. For an added measure of safety, you may remind the Cuban Immigration official before you hand over the passport. The stamp is a small square that usually appears on page 16, but is generally recognizable by U.S. Immigration officials.
For more details on Americans traveling to Cuba and tips for avoiding detection for unlicensed travel, visit Wiki Voyage.
It is the traveler’s responsibility to demonstrate that his/her proposed itinerary/activities in Cuba meet the license criteria set forth in the OFAC Guidelines. If traveling as part of a group people-to-people trip, normally the sponsoring agency takes care of your record-keeping requirements (affidavit + itinerary, on file for 5 years from travel). The traveler’s itinerary must correspond to the chosen license category and must include a full-time schedule of authorized activities. In the case of an individual traveling under the auspices of an organization that is a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction and that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact, the individual may rely on the entity sponsoring the travel to satisfy those recordkeeping requirements. Note that any undocumented & unsupervised independent pre/post trip extensions may disqualify the traveler’s eligibility for the group people to people license category.
Travel Service Providers
As a Canadian tour operator in good standing with the Cuban Chamber of Commerce, WoWCuba can assist in arranging Cuba travel packages for travelers of any nationality.
For licensed or unlicensed U.S. travelers
Flights to Cuba from third countries such as Canada, Mexico or the Bahamas are among the most popular for unlicensed US travel to Cuba. WoWCuba can assist in arranging flights with Cubana Airlines from points outside of the U.S.A. to Cuba. Cubana flights do not require travelers to sign affadavits, just as Cuba has no rules requiring US travelers to comply with OFAC-licensed travel regulations while in the country. Airlines such as Aeromexico (with US shareholders) may also require you to sign an affidavit and therefore may not be the best choice if you’re attempting to fly to Cuba under the US radar.
Medical Insurance for unlicensed travelers
For unlicensed Cuba travelers, medical insurance is available upon arrival in Cuba from Asistur. Website: www.asistur.cu (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, in Old Havana, their office is located at Paseo del Prado #254.
For licensed U.S. travelers only
If purchasing your flight services direct from the USA to Cuba from a U.S. travel service provider, signing an affidavit attesting to the fact that you will be engaging in licensed travel (if under a Specific License, then accompanied by that license; if General then simply stating your travel plans) will allow the airline/travel service provider to sell you an airline ticket for travel directly to Cuba.
Medical Insurance for licensed travelers
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.
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 traveling to Cuba for tourism purposes qualify for a 30-day tourist 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 tourist visas in ticket prices; in other cases they are available for $15-20 at the departure airport. If you arrive in Cuba without one, you will have to purchase your visa from Cuban Immigration for $25. 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.
Although authorized US Travelers to Cuba will now be allowed to use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba, US banks largely haven’t yet made that possible. We wouldn’t recommend that you use either in Cuba if you’re not undertaking travel in one of the authorized license categories and aren’t 100% certain that your trip content qualifies for authorized travel. 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. We offer 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.