ONE COUNTRY, TWO CURRENCIES
Cuba has two official currencies called “peso” and your US credit cards and ATM cards are useless. Yes, it can be confusing, but I'll explain. One currency (CUP) is mainly used by locals and the other by tourists (CUC), but not exclusively so. As a tourist you might only see the CUC, aka “Peso Convertible”. Before you go, I recommend knowing what both look like, what they are worth, and where each can be used. The pronunciation is simple: CUC is “kook” and CUP is “koop”. Locals usually just said the amount without specifying the currency unless I asked which can be confusing.
- CUC: Peso Convertible (mainly used by tourists)
- CUP: Peso Cubano / “moneda nacionale” (mainly used by Cubans)
Converting CUC to CUP
1 CUC = $~1 USD = 25 CUP
The CUC is 25 times more valuable that the CUP. If you're not paying attention, someone may easily scam you. After experiencing price gouging taxi drivers, I was certainly on higher alert that I might get ripped off. Fortunately, no one tried to slip me the wrong currency as change.
Most of the time, you will just be using convertible pesos (CUC). CUP bills were a bit hard to find and only towards the end of our trip did we find a money exchange that offered both currencies. CUP is only really useful for smaller purchases like street food, cafeterias, or taxi colectivos (shared taxis).
While most places seemed to accept either currency, they displayed prices in either CUC or CUP (but did not always indicate which one). A few displayed both ways. You'll be able to figure it out. For example, if a sandwich costs 10, its probably 10 CUP (~ $0.40 USD), not 10 CUC (~ $10 USD). It took me a while to understand this walking back and forth on the main street seeing these stack of sandwiches for sale at the front of a restaurant for “10”. It's not 1/2 a month salary for a cuban so it CANNOT be CUC! Sure, a tourist may get tricked into paying 10 CUC (~$10 USD). If a chicken lunch plate (chicken, rice, beans, potato) costs 5, its 5 CUC (~ $5 USD), not 5 CUP (~$0.20 USD). Food can be very cheap in Cuba, but lets be realistic. Keeping in mind that the average salary in Cuba is 20 CUC should help you know which is which.
There are also tourist restaurants where you can spend 50+ CUC per person. It should be painfully obvious that an entree at a nicer restaurant in the middle of Old Havana is priced in CUC. Those are “special prices” for tourists who don't mind overpaying because not many Cubans can afford that. Be sure to check the prices before you sit down as your lunch could cost a few dollars to $50+ per person.
How to identify CUC vs CUP
- CUC: says “Peso Convertible” on the front and back, has pictures of statues/monuments, and feels more official
- CUP: has pictures of people and were generally lower quality and worn. A bit of monopoly money feel.
- See photos of all the denominations here: CUC and CUP
CUP (left) – CUC (right)
The back sides of the currency look like this:
CUP (left) – CUC (right)
Cuban currency is only available in Cuba, so you'll only be able to get some after you arrive. Banco Central de Cuba publishes the official exchange rates on their website. Although the CUC is equal to $1 USD, unfortunately you cannot exchange anywhere close to this rate. All of the exchange houses charge a 10% penalty when exchanging US Dollars PLUS the usual 3%. There were no “fees”, however, they get their fee by giving you about 3% less than the actual exchange rate. That means exchanging $100 USD will get you about 87 CUC. When dealing with ANY exchange house while traveling, I just ask how much I will get back rather than trying to figure out rates and fees.
Supposedly, there is a black market where you can get 100 CUC for your crisp $100 USD bill, but that's not something I felt comfortable exploring. The front door to my Airbnb apartment had about 5-6 locks plus a metal gate despite being in a great area in Vedado.
Avoiding the 10% USD Penalty
Trying to avoid the 10% penalty did not work out as well as I had hoped. I exchanged $500 USD to Euros at Citibank. The exchange rate was about 6% lower than the actual spot rate plus they charged a $5 fee. Not all banks carry foreign currency and may need to order it, adding hassle to the process. When I exchanged the Euros in Cuba, I lost another 3%. In the end, I lost ~6% at Citibank + ~3% for a total loss of about 9% during the exchange process. Exchanging USD would have cost me even more ~13%.
- Exchanging USD: 3% + 10% penalty.
- Exchanging non-USD costs ~3% + cost of getting the other currency
Bottom Line: Pick your poison: Bring USD and lose 13% or change your money to EUR, CAD, GBP, CHF, MXN or JPY and lose around 9% or less. Either way, bring extra cash because your credit and ATM cards won't work.
Here are the exchange rates from this money exchange “Casa de Cambio”. You'll be looking at the numbers on the left labeled “COMPRA”, or “BUY”.
- Change $100 USD, you get $100 x 0.9685 = 96.85 CUC less 10% penalty = 87.165 CUC.
- Change 100 EUR, you get 100 x 1.0685 = 106.85 CUC. The Euro/USD was ~ 1.09 at the time (2nd week of March).
- Change 1 CUC, you get 1 x 24 = 24 CUP. We got ~ 200 CUP to use for taxi rides and small purchases.
Below are the rates at Habana Libre hotel which are displayed a bit differently. I didn't exchange here but I believe the math would work like this:
- Change $100 USD, you get $100 / 1.14548 = 87.30 CUC (this should include the 10% fee) Slightly better than above.
- Change 100 EUR, you get 100 / 0.94718 = 105.57 CUC. Slightly worse than above.
Want to exchange money? Get in line:
Credit Cards & ATMS
Cards from banks based in the United States won't work. Even my HSBC credit card didn't work. While non-US credit cards may work, expect to pay cash for most purchases. Still, it's a good idea to bring some US credit cards. If you run out of money, at least you'll be able to buy some bad food at your connecting airport.
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!
Going to Cuba? Let me know if I missed anything.
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