This post is geared towards the traveler who is a citizen
of the United States.
However, some of it is general in scope and may be used by others.
Many have the fascination of going to Cuba. There is so much information; some good, some bad, some outdated. So, this post provides an updated experience from my recent trek.
Going to Cuba is not something you do on a lark, as planning must be detailed. The question you might want to ask is why are you going to Cuba? Going as a general tourist or going to get some cigars, sip on mojitos, or take in the beautiful beaches should not be your answer (although you are allowed as long as you go with a licensed tour group)!
Although it is rare, it can be nothing worse than to be in another country whose relationship with the United States is tenuous at best and where there is still an effective embargo, and run into a situation where you need immediate assistance (need money, medical care, lose your travel visa, etc.).
Even though President Obama improved relationships with Cuba in December 2015 through an Executive Order which resulted in Americans having better access to Cuba and vice versa, President Trump reversed course and there are specific updates you must factor into your planning, so that you are not in violation of Federal law.
Admittedly, during my treks I have come across American’s who were willing to take a chance and are roaming the countryside as “tourist.” That is a person’s personal prerogative and even though I have never been stopped by authorities questioning my visits, for me the risk is too high, as it is easier to comply.
Here are the updated steps:
- READ AND UNDERSTAND the guidance from the Treasury Department. In my case, I am OK because I use my journalist license and have a thorough itinerary to address the reason I am there.
- When you purchase your air travel, your carrier will have a brief questionnaire (online) that acknowledges you meet approved guidelines to enter Cuba.
- Days before your travel, it is suggested you register your trip with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (U.S. Department of State).
- You may have read that health insurance is required as well as a departure tax? That has changed and most carriers add those cost as part of your travel fare. Once purchased you will be able to see the itemized portion on your ticket.
- If not already enrolled, I would recommend you signing up for TSA Pre as this will save you some time.
- In preparation for your return, I would recommend you download the “My Mobile Passport” app as this will help you breeze through U.S. Customs.
- It is not totally necessary but I would recommend you coordinate taxi pickup. You can contact direct or have your host (casa particulares) coordinate. A typical cost is $25 CUCS (general Havana which is about 12 miles from airport). Again, if you decide against doing this, NO PROBLEM as there are many taxis once you get outside of the airport.
- To enter CUBA, you need a valid passport BUT MORE IMPORTANT you need a Travel Visa. The prices range based on your departure city/country. As an example, from Cancun the fee is $25. However, from the U.S. expect $50 – $100. You can purchase in advance (Cuba Travel Services) but relax as your carrier will have an agent adjacent your check-in who will handle the transaction (credit cards are accepted).
- Once you depart and about an hour before landing there will be an announcement alerting you to complete supplemental documents which must be presenting upon arrival and going through Cuba customs. Relax, don’t overthink the process.
- Most flights from the U.S. are “international flights” so you will be landing in TERMINAL 2.
- Once you pick up your luggage, you will proceed to the Customs clerk. They will have you remove your cap and glasses (if appropriate) as they will take a head-shot. THEY WILL STAMP YOUR TRAVEL VISA AND THIS MUST REMAIN IN YOUR POSSESSION AT ALL TIMES DURING YOUR STAY. If you have the misfortune of losing it, DON’T PANIC…. on your departure you just have to plan on getting to the airport early to explain your situation. Be prepared for an interrogation of how/why it was lost and don’t be surprised if you are charged for a replacement.
- Once you pass through Customs you will see a “Declaration area.” FOR MOST U.S. TRAVELERS simply proceed to the NON-DECLARATION AREA (as for the most part you are not bringing anything into the country of significant value). The clerk will complete a cursory review of your personal luggage and pass you through.
- Your next step is to convert your U.S. Dollars into Cuban CUCS. If you don’t see the window, simply ask someone. Again, I know there is some discussion on the internet that you might want to do this while in the U.S., such as converting your dollars to Euros, etc. but from my experience IT IS NOT WORTH IT. Just be prepared to have the tax/fee come out of your change (i.e., $100-$13=$87).
- THAT’S IT. Go outside and grab your taxi and enjoy your time in CUBA.
COMING BACK HOME –
Remember the new guidelines allow for unrestricted purchase of cigars/rum, however most are restricted due to weight of luggage, so depending on your budget it may be a good idea to pack up to your weight (as an example, rum is bottled and can be heavy and in my garment bag I was able to pack 6 bottles and still stay within the weight limit). You can always purchase more in the duty-free area of which you will be bringing on your flight as a carry-on.
- Make sure you check-in online and pay any luggage fees (remember for the most part you won’t be able to use your credit cards at the airport and paying at the check-in may result in higher fees).
- Make sure you verify where which terminal your flight is departing. The last thing you want to do is be at the wrong terminal and have to hustle to get a taxi to the correct one which will result in unnecessary taxi fees as well as personal stress.
- The airport is busy but pretty organized, so give yourself enough time for unforeseen issues.
- When you go through Cuba customs they will once again take a head-shot. The officer will take your stamped travel visa and file. YOUR PASSPORT WILL BE STAMPED.
- You will see a duty-free area for last minute souvenirs. It’s actually pretty affordable and can be a good option to get rid of your Cuban money (CUCS/CUPS). As part of my planning I bring a knapsack or bag so that I can handle any duty-free purchases. This will minimize breakage or trying to figure out how to lug the items around.
- Upon arriving back into the United States, you will go through customs. THIS IS WHERE YOU MY MOBILE PASSPORT COMES IN HANDY, as you complete your declarations via the app. You will see throngs of folk who didn’t pay attention and are snaked in long lines getting through customs. The mobile line is usually short.
- Once through Customs you will be directed to pick-up your luggage and drop off for your final destination flight.
- You will proceed through the other part of customs for final bag check. Your duty-free items will be inspected so don’t be surprised if the bag is opened. Once cleared, head to your gate.