Cuba is just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, but for over 50 years it may as well have been on the other side of the world; however, diplomatic relations were recently reestablished allowing more Americans to travel to the island legally. You still can’t visit for general tourism, but the categories of authorized travel have been expanded and now don’t include a requirement for application and case-by-case determination.
While it’s still not the easiest place in the world to visit, many Americans are anxious to see Cuba before it becomes a tourist trap. If you don’t mind a little inconvenience — stop and start electricity, very minimal internet access — and are prepared to mind your manners, Cuba offers white sand beaches, lush mountain greenery, beautiful 16th century Spanish Colonial architecture, great food, nightlife booming with vibrant music, and a warm and colorful multi-ethnic culture.
What Documents Will I Need?
For Americans, travel to Cuba requires a valid passport, a visa issued by the Cuban Embassy, and a license issued by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. You’ll also need non-U.S. medical insurance, which can be purchased from the Cuban Embassy. No special vaccinations or health certifications are required, though the CDC recommends vaccinations or boosters to protect you against Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, rabies, and typhoid.
How Do I Qualify for a License?
You must be prepared to prove that your trip is going to help the Cuban people or that it has an educational component. This doesn’t mean that while you’re there you can’t go sightseeing, spend an afternoon on the beach, or enjoy an evening in a nightclub sipping mojitos and salsa dancing. The 12 general categories of approved reasons for visiting Cuba 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.
- 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.
How Do I Get to Cuba?
You can travel on your own, taking any one of several U.S. airlines like American and JetBlue that are now scheduling regular flights from Miami, Tampa, Orlando, and New York. If you’re a little less adventuresome or like the safety in numbers, you can sign on for one of the tours offered by a host of travel companies (some of which are designated for “educational” purposes), or you can wait until May 2016 when Carnival Cruises plans to begin sailing to Cuba.
What About Money?
Although things may be changing, at this time you will generally not be able to use U.S. credit cards, debit cards, personal checks, or travelers checks in Cuba. Hard cash is the medium of exchange, and you’ll need to carry it with you all the time. However, smart travelers will want to pay in advance for their airline tickets and other travel arrangements with credit cards that offer the best rewards.
What Can I Bring Home?
While the idea of shopping in Cuba might be intriguing, you will be limited in what you can bring home. $400 is the current ceiling on the value of souvenirs in accompanied baggage, with a $100 total of that allowable for tobacco products and liquor meant for personal use. This means you can smoke all the Cuban cigars you want while you’re there, but can’t promise your friends that you’ll be coming home with boxes for them all.
What Else Should I Know?
Spanish is the language in Cuba, and even in hotels and restaurants not many people speak English, so bring a good phrase book and dictionary. Cuba isn’t set up to receive hordes of American visitors, so while you’ll be seeing the country before tourists “ruin” it, be prepared to more or less rough it without the amenities you’re used to in many other parts of the world.
What Should I Be Wary Of?
According to the U.S. State Department, Cuba is an authoritarian state that routinely employs repressive methods against internal dissent, and monitors and responds to perceived threats to authority, both from its citizens and from foreign visitors. While Cuba welcomes travelers from the United States, you should be aware that your activities may be subject to surveillance, and your contact with Cuban citizens monitored closely. Even U.S. diplomats are not allowed to travel freely outside the capital city of Havana, and may be prevented from providing assistance in outlying areas.
The State Department offers extensive information about travel to Cuba, and routinely issues travel alerts and other important information. Learning as much as you can before you go will make your trip that much easier and that much more rewarding.