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, medical insurance, and travel affidavit. I just returned from a week in Cuba and will explain below.
Who can visit Cuba?
UPDATE 6/17/17: Recent changes now require anyone traveling under the “education activities” category below to travel as part of an organized tour group. That means you can't design your own trip and go to Cuba on your own (under the educational category). This eliminates one of the easiest categories for people to go under.
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)?
No, but the US airline will probably have you fill out a OFAC certification form where you will select your reason/category for travel.
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.”
- Alaska Airlines asks you to provide a travel affidavit where you will provide your reason for travel.
- Delta's website states, “Yes, all passengers (U.S. and non-U.S.) traveling on a U.S. carrier must sign the OFAC certification.” They are working on an electronic form…until then, “Delta will provide a paper form at the gateway departure gate.” It also says passengers do not need to prove the reason for travel, but passengers are responsible for ensuring that they qualify.
Other airlines may require this as well but this was not required when I went (but that was before flights from the US were allowed to Cuba).
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)?
- Buy a Visa at the airport. Airports in the United States that connect to Cuba should have them available for $50 USD depending on your airline, or less outside the US. DOUBLE CHECK WITH YOUR AIRLINE! I've checked some airlines and provided the evidence below, but I don't want you to go there and get stuck (and the airline won't care what is written here).
- JetBlue + United sell Tourist Visas at the “gateway airport” (the final airport before departing the US for $50 USD per person. [Links: Jetblue + screen shot; United]. Strangely, United says “An additional $25 USD service charge will also be collected per person by Cuba Travel Services (CTS)”
- Alaska Airlines told me they “are not responsible for visas” and to check with the airport (LAX had no idea when I called). Alaska Airline's website suggests passengers to get a Tourist Visa card from their partner Cuba Travel Services. [see screen shot]. Cuba Travel Services charges $85 for the Tourist Card ($50 + $35 processing fee).
- Delta sells $50 at the gateway departure gate, prior to boarding, and accepts credit and debit cards according to Delta.com. [See screen shot].
- Frontier also links to Cuba Travel Services for the $85 Tourist Card ($50 + $35 processing fee).
- AeroMexico sells Tourist Cards, according to their website, “Cancun and Mexico City airports, at both the check-in desk and the customer service desk near the departure gates — no need to obtain this document in advance!” The price was 361 Mexican Pesos (~$18 USD) according to comments from Bo.
- Buy it online. I found these options online but haven't tried any of them yet. If anyone has any experience with these, please let me know.
- 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. No passports or anything else was required other than a $20 dollar bill.
- There are some other agencies who will sell you one online but they require lots of paperwork and lots of fees. I think $50 is already too much so I would hesitate paying more.
There may be some questions when leaving your US based airport without the card. The United agent at Newark Airport asked about the visa when she tried to check us in all the way to Cuba (through Panama). 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. This is where a second passport comes in handy to speed up the process – and that may have been the key to allowing her to check us in all the way.
Do I need to have non-US medical insurance?
- It is likely included with your fare on a US airline. Keep reading to find out.
- “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. Note that I did not directly from US to Cuba. 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 to buy some minimum coverage for my trips. 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?
US Airlines have made this very easy. Many of them include a fee to cover your Cuban medical insurance in your fare. Check before you go. I found many of the links to help you:
- United adds $25 to your fare for Cuba medical insurance according to their webpage
- JetBlue includes Cuba medical insurance in the fare according to their webpage (see screen shot)
- Alaska Airlines includes Cuba medical insurance in the fare (they add $25) according to their Cuba page.
- Delta includes Cuba medical insurance in the far (they add $25) according to Delta.com. [See screen shot].
- Frontier also adds on $25 for the insurance according to their website.
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?
And when you come back, they probably know you went to Cuba even if you didn't fly directly from the US or 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. I guess some how I chose the slowest agent. 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 – welcome to 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!