Heading to Cuba? Get ready to disconnect from all your devices. You are about to do a digital detox.
Knowing that I would have plenty of free time in Cuba, I was planning to use some of it to catch up on some emails and work. Reality check. Not only did none of my credit cards work, but neither did my phone or the internet, no matter where we went. This was my much needed digital detox whether I liked it or not.
Forget about relying on internet for anything! Buy a guide book + map before you come, and be ready to practice your Spanish. I regret not buying these critical items as I usually look up maps/restaurants/things to do at the hotel (free SPG wifi!) or on my cell phone. Tourist information/maps is very limited. You won't see people walking and texting like almost everyone seems to do in New York City!
Most Cubans don't have internet at home and have to make a special trip to a park or street with Wifi. If and when it works, it will be good enough for email and maybe Facebook. Don't count on getting any non-email work done. After wasting 5 CUC for 1 hour of barely working wifi at Habana Libre hotel, I thought spending 7 CUC for 1 hour of wifi at Hotel Nacional would work better. I only wasted 1/2 hour trying to connect to the airline's website to check in. It still paid off! I got to skip the huge 2 hour line of people waiting to check-in at the airport.
Where to buy Wifi Cards
There are a few places you can buy internet access: hotels, small shops, or on the street. The bigger hotels are the most expensive while buying a card on the street is probably your best bet. The cheapest option (2 CUC/hr) is to buy the 1 hour cards from Etecsa. Unfortunately, you'll have to wait on these long lines (see pic below) to get a chance to buy them. I was told that employees usually buy them all to resell, so they might be sold out by the time it's your turn. The street cards (3 CUC/hr) worked better than the hotel purchased wifi. Despite several hotel employees saying that only their internet would work in the hotel area, the street wifi cards worked, too. I used the cheap cards at several different hotels.
- Logout! or you will likely burn the entire hour. For the hotel wifi, there was a website to logout: http://logout.now. I'm not exactly sure how to officially log out on the 3 CUC cards other than turning off wifi.
- Check the expiration date. Hotel Libre Wifi was good for 3 days. Etecsa cards are good for 30 days after first login. Despite logging out, there didn't seem to be much time left the next day.
- Have EXACT change when buying cards (or anything) on the street. The vendor I found took my 5 CUC and started walking down the street asking shops and strangers for change. I found a 3 CUC bill, but not before I had to chase him as he ran off with my cash.
- I thought I got ripped off after I bought my first card “tarjeta” from a street vendor. It was different than the one my Airbnb host showed me so I thought it was a fake…but it worked! Here's a pic of the front/back/inside:
Prices for Wifi Hotspots
- Hotel Nacionale: 7 CUC / Hour
- Hotel Libre: 5 CUC / Hour
- Small shops / streets: 3 CUC / Hour
- Etecsa: 2 CUC / Hour
Here's what the almost useless Habana Libre Hotspot login looks like:
There are only 35 public hotspots in the entire country. Here is a map of the hotspots, however, this doesn't match with the official list from Etecsa, the service provider. After walking all around El Vedado, I noticed a couple hotspots on Calle 23 (the main strip). Go to Hotel Habana Libre and look for people hanging out looking at their phones. Or just go in the hotel. That's your hotspot.
Will your cell phone work?
Verizon and Sprint both have roaming agreements. AT&T does not. Check the cost for roaming before you leave, you're going to need it, at a minimum, to check in to your flight (or wait hours with everyone else who didn't). There was an open counter at the airport specifically for web checkin. We were literally the only ones using it.
Rent a SIM card
If your US phone is unlocked and GSM-capable, you can rent a SIM card from Cubacel (part of ETESCA). According to the FCC, you can buy pre-paid cards worth 10, 20, or 40 CUC plus a daily rental fee of 3 CUC. I did not do bother with this but you can find more options on the FCC website.
IN THE FUTURE
Things are likely to change in Cuba soon. Please let me know of any changes to the above if you happen to visit.
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!