Travel to Cuba for US Citizens has been restricted for a very long time. The rules have changed and you can now travel to Cuba for certain specific reasons. Before you go, you’ll need a few other things like a Tourist Visa Card and medical insurance. I just returned from a week in Cuba and will explain below.
Who can visit Cuba?
If you have a non-US passport, use it. You can avoid the following requirements which apply only to those traveling on a US Passport. If you only have a US Passport, your visit must be for one of the below 12 categories specified by the US Department of Treasury:
- 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
The purpose of my visit was journalistic activity. I brought some documents as evidence just in case (business cards and a print out from my blog). I didn’t see anyone checking this but that doesn’t mean they won’t if you go.
Do I need to submit a written request if my visit falls within the scope of a general license (the 12 categories above)?
In the past, travel for the above purposes required a “specific license” which required an application and a case-by-case determination. That’s no longer true. According to the US Dept of Treasury (pg 2), “No further permission from OFAC is required to engage in transactions by a person who meets all criteria in a general license.”
Can I travel to Cuba for tourism?
Your visit HAS to be for one of the above 12 reasons. According to Huffington Post’s article, “Here’s How To Travel To Cuba Without Getting Fined,” you could get fined, though only one penalty was issued so far and it was for $89,775 against Red Bull. The easiest categories to travel under are probably “educational” or “religious”. The HuffPo article quotes Wayne Smith, a consultant at the Center for International Policy in Washington and a former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana:
“As far as the educational trips go, all you have to do is sign a piece of paper saying you’re going to learn about some aspect of Cuban life,” Smith told HuffPost. “It’s very easy. Virtually anyone who wants to travel to Cuba now can do so.”
Do I need a Cuban Visa (Tourist Card)?
United States citizens need one as do citizens of most countries. CubaVisas.com has a list of which countries require a visa. I do not see a similar list on the Cuba Embassy website, so I cannot confirm if their list is accurate.
How do I get a Cuban Visa (Tourist Card)?
We bought our visa (tourist card) when we connected in Panama (PTY) airport. It was not available to purchase during any flights. There was a booth near the gate for the Havana flight but there were no signs. We paid $20 USD each (cash only!) and they handed us the Tourist Card below. No questions asked…it took 2 seconds.
You may have some difficulty leaving your US based airport without the card. The United agent at Newark Airport asked about the visa when we tried to check in (online check-in was not available). I explained that we were going to get the visa in Panama but she still had trouble checking me in only to Panama, where I would have to check in for the final flight to Cuba. This is where a second passport comes in handy to speed up the process.
TripAdvisor has instructions on how to purchase and have the visa mailed to your home before you depart for around 25 GBP
Do I need to have non-US medical insurance?
- “Cuba requires visitors to have non-U.S. medical insurance, and sells a temporary policy to those who do not have it.” (Source: US Department of State).
- “The Government of Cuba decided last February 16, that all travelers, foreign and Cubans living abroad, coming to the island from May 1, 2010 and thereafter shall take out a medical insurance policy.” (Source: Embassy of Cuba in Canada)
No one asked me for proof or tried to sell me any insurance. But, since it’s required, I was prepared with two insurances, just in case:
- I brought my work insurance card and made sure to call in advance to confirm that I’m covered outside of the US and specifically in Cuba. They said yes!
- In addition, I bought travel insurance from SquareMouth, a comparison site I’ve been using for years. Never buy the trip insurance offered when you are booking flights before checking SquareMouth first – it’s always been better and cheaper. The plan I got this time was $45 for two people and included ’emergency medical’ and many other coverages.
Credit Cards: If you paid for your flights with a credit card, you might have medical insurance. If you want to rely on this, I would suggest asking for a letter stating that the coverage is valid in Cuba.
Does US medical insurance count?
Good question! My medical insurance confirmed I’m covered in Cuba. The Cuban Embassy contradicts this: “US insurance companies do not provide coverage in the Cuban national territory,” and says you should buy insurance through their government owned provider, Havantur-Celimar Company or Asistur insurance company.
How do I buy Cuban medical insurance?
If you want to play it safe, and follow the Cuban’s embassy’s instructions, you can buy insurance from the Cuban insurance company, Asistur. It’s reasonably priced between 2.50-3.00 CUC (~$2.50-$3 USD) per person per day, if you buy it before you leave, according to the Cuban Embassy.
Will Cuban immigration stamp my passport?
Our passports were stamped both on the way in and out. The stamps are the usual small ones that don’t take up much space (see pic). It seems that they did not stamp US Passports in the past but now are stamping all of them.
Can I use Global Entry when coming home from Cuba?
When you come back, they will know you went to Cuba even if you didn’t use your US Passport to enter.
How long is the Immigration process in Cuba?
It took at least 30-45 minutes. Despite choosing shortest line, every other line went faster and when it was our turn, almost the entire hall was empty. After you get your passport stamped, there is second stopping point. The woman asked how long we are staying and then let us through. There was a large crowd building up there and I’m still not sure what this was for. Just get used to waiting on lines – you’re now in Cuba!
- Here’s How To Travel To Cuba Without Getting Fined
- Embassy of Cuba in Canada – medical insurance and other tourist info
- US Department of State – Cuba travel info page
- US Dept. of Treasury – FAQ for travel to Cuba (PDF updated 3-15-16)
- LA Times: Travel to Cuba: What you need to know
My Cameras: These photos were taken using either my Canon S110 (newer model is S120) or my Sony a6000 (with this wide angle lens). The Canon is fits in my pocket and takes amazing pictures. The Sony packs the power of a full size DSLR while being small enough that I’m still willing to bring it!