Visiting Cuba? Here's What Americans Need to Know

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Now that the travel ban has been lifted, Americans can visit Cuba, but there are limitations

On Dec. 17, 2014, Cuba freed U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, who had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011, after his effort to create a way to communicate outside of the Cuban government's control. Cuba cited humanitarian grounds as the reason for Gross' release. In response to the prisoner release, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would begin working with Cuba on resuming full diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time since 1961, paving the way for Americans to begin traveling there legally. Before Dec. 2014, Americans could only travel to Cuba with permission from the U.S. State Department.

Legal, but Limited

Even though the travel ban to Cuba has been lifted for U.S. citizens, there are still limitations. Trips to Cuba by Americans must fall under one of the 12 approved categories below.

  1. Family visits
  2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research and meetings
  5. Educational activities
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, exhibitions, athletic and other competitions
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian projects
  10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information / materials
  12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines

Tourists from the U.S. must go as part of a religious, educational, and cultural group. The trips are booked through an official travel organization that has been approved and licensed by the U.S. State Department. Those organizations include Central Holidays, Insight Cuba, and YMT Vacations. These trips are guided tours that encourage “people to people“ contact between Americans and Cubans. Tours have set itineraries, which include historic sites and museums. Activities such as a day at the beach or swimming in the Caribbean are not part of the tour because they do not involve interaction with the Cuban people.

Popular Destination

Travel restrictions do not apply to non-American travelers. More than two million tourists visit Cuba every year. It is especially popular with Canadians and Europeans. In the past, Americans have visited Cuba by flying there from another country. These countries offer travelers Cuban tourist cards that are good for a 30 day stay.

Travel companies such as CubaLinda and USA Cuba Travel work with U.S. citizens who wish to travel on their own to the Caribbean nation. However, if Americans are caught traveling illegally in Cuba, they are charged huge fines and can have trouble clearing customs.

In the past, the lack of an embassy made it difficult for Americans to find assistance while in Cuba. However, that would soon change. In 2015, plans were made for the U.S. to open an embassy in Havana. Internet service was also offered for the first time in 2015.

Credit Card Access

With the travel ban lifted, other restrictions were slowly changing, making it easier on Americans while visiting Cuba. Previously, U.S.-issued debit and credit cards had not been recognized by Cuban banks so travelers had to bring cash to last for the duration of their trip, exchanging currency at airports or hotels. On March 1, 2015, MasterCard began handling U.S. credit card transactions in Cuba, becoming the first credit card company to adjust to the renewed diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Other companies were expected to follow. An American Express spokeswoman said that they were evaluating the new regulations released by the U.S. Department of Treasury "to better understand what is permissible and how we would operate if we choose to do so."

Is Cuba Safe?

Of all the countries in Latin America, Cuba currently has the lowest crime rate. Personal safety isn't an issue in hotels, on the streets, or at any site on the guided tours. Petty crimes such as pick-pocketing and purse snatching are rare.

What Can I Bring Back from Cuba?

For years, due to the trade embargo, visitors to Cuba couldn't bring items such as food, coffee, or those coveted Cuban cigars into the United States. Those items would be confiscated by U.S. Customs.

However, thanks to the renewed diplomatic relations, the U.S. government now allows Americans to bring back small quantities of items, including cigars. Cuban cigar makers estimate that their sales will increase from three million to six million in 2015 due to this new rule.

Even though travel to Cuba for Americans isn't as simple as booking a hotel and flight online through sites like Orbitz or Expedia, it is easier now that the two countries have renewed diplomatic relations. U.S. citizens no longer have to obtain permission via the U.S. State Department. Internet access, an embassy, and the use of credit cards will now be available to assist Americans while visiting Cuba.

Source: U.S. State Department

—Jennie Wood
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