Traveling to Cuba as an American was daunting. Will they let me in? What questions will they ask me at immigration? Should I get a stamp? YIKES. That’s EXACTLY why I wanted to write a guide for Americans specifically because the Cuba landscape continues to change over and over for us.
Whilst this post might become a little outdated as the political climate changes, I will focus on the experience as a whole so you can have some idea of what to expect once you’re there.
In this Havana Guide for Americans, you’ll read about:
- Immigration Process
- Exchanging Money
- Internet (or lack thereof)
- Casa Particulares
- Tourism top 5
- Unique oddities
- FREE Downloadable Google Map (works in offline mode!)
Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Immigration Process
There’s A LOT of information online about traveling to Cuba as an American and it can feel SO overwhelming.
I wanted to make sure that my Guide for Americans traveling to Cuba wasn’t vague and unspecific, so I’m going to cover my experience of going through Immigration in detail to give you a mental picture of what to expect. In my Guide for Americans, I’ll be discussing:
- Necessary documents
- Getting a Cuban Visa
- The Cuban immigration process
- Getting cash.
1. Necessary Documents
When flying to Cuba, all of the Guides for Americans will tell you that you are expected to have the following when you arrive.
- Passport valid for at least one month beyond your departure date
- Cuba ‘tourist card’ filled out completely
- Proof of travel medical insurance (as there are random checks at airport)
- Evidence of sufficient funds for the duration of your stay
- Return air ticket
However, in this Guide for Americans, I wanted to focus on what actually happened vs what the government websites will imply as they often focus on a ‘worst-case scenario.’
We were never asked for proof of travel medical insurance NOR proof of sufficient funds for the duration of our stay.
I’ve heard from sites like ViaHero that having a ‘detailed itinerary’ to present at Immigration is necessary to ‘prove’ you are NOT spending money at government establishments and instead, you are supporting the local Cuban people… but I was never asked about this once.
I still came with a proper agenda printed out, but this caused me a significant amount of anxiety that I thought I would spare you in my Guide for Americans.
2. Getting a Cuban Visa
We took an Interjet flight from Cancun to Havana in December 2019 and the flights were about £50 per person. Before checking in, we needed to get our ‘Cuban Visa,’ which can be obtained at the Interjet Customer Support Desk to the right of the airport entrance.
However, the Customer Support Desk was CLOSED with no sign about when it would be open and this was going to be a major theme with our Interjet experience (lol).
When the Interjet counter was finally open, we purchased our ‘Cuban Visa’ for 350 pesos each, which is just over $18 USD. We have heard of ‘special representatives’ that will fill the visa out for you and charge a markup (around 400 pesos), however, someone at the desk told us to get the visa by the check-in line with two Interjet representatives and they did not charge us a markup.
In my Guide for Americans Traveling to Cuba, I want to emphasize that there is no need to over-stress about this process. It’s super easy. The Visa has no background checks or any actual admin involved.
It’s just your personal information and you need to keep it for your entire trip as they will take it back when you leave Cuba. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!
You DO NOT need to pay an extortionate amount of money to get a Cuban Visa before departure. We saw prices of up to $90 USD online to get the visa before our trip began and we decided to ‘risk it for a biscuit’ by getting it the day of. There were no complications.
A few Weird Things About Interjet Worth Noting!
- Both Interjet’s check-in desk and Customer Support desk ONLY opens 3 hours in advance… and not a second before (lol)
- There is no ability to check in early online. You have to come 3 hours in advance because it will take that long due to the +4 or 5 bags each individual Cuba traveler will check-in. These are filled with staples that they are likely taking home to their family.
- The seats on the Interjet plane are incredibly spacious and comfortable. Who knew?!
- When calling out ‘groups’ for boarding, no one really cares which group you’re in. It’s a mad dash after Group 1.
3. Cuban Immigration Process
This is where I wanted my Guide for Americans Traveling to Cuba to be different. I wasn’t able to find a ‘play-by-play’ in any other Guide for Americans regarding what happens once you get to Immigration – so I decided to put one together for you guys 🙂
I‘ve lived abroad for many years and love helping others find work abroad and figure out their “Move Abroad Plan.” Check out my class below to get you started ASAP!
What Actually Happened
When you get off your flight, you’ll be ushered into a single immigration hall with several, long red desks that separate you from the other side. Every single immigration officer was an attractive young woman, between age 22-32 I would say.
We asked our guide why and she said these ladies are hoping to meet someone who will take them OUT of Cuba, but it’s hard to find love in Immigration – ya feel me?
Here’s what happened to me:
- I gave my passport to the woman and she asked me to look into a camera (no smiling) to take a photo. No questions were asked.
- She started fumbling with a stamp and I asked her not to stamp my passport. She stamped my Cuban Visa instead (on a separate sheet) and I went through the turnstile.
- Then there was another baggage check just for what you carried onto the plane with a metal detector and X-ray machine.
- After this, I left to get my bags but I noticed people were fumbling with a blue document. I was told by another foreigner it was a declaration of good document so I thought I wouldn’t need it.
- When I tried to leave the baggage claim, I was stopped because I had no blue document. The Blue Document is IMPORTANT.
- However, when I went back for the blue document, the young woman wouldn’t give me the document?? I started arguing in Spanish with them until an older, more senior lady took it from her subordinate and gave me a copy.
- On the Blue Document, you have to declare what type of things you’re bringing in (money, items, pornography…?) and then you pass the paper along to the final security person to leave.
Note: There was a table of white coats between the final baggage check and the checked baggage. They didn’t interact with everyone; they only pulled a few people. This might be where you need to demonstrate that you have travel insurance, but I don’t know this for sure.
4. Getting Cash at Havana International Airport: How Much Cash Do You Need to Bring to Cuba?
Here’s another gap in most Guides for Americans. Most of the guides ‘mentioned’ that you could exchange money at the airport, but they neglected to describe the oddities involved.
When you exit baggage and immigration, you’ll walk into the main airport entrance area. To your right, there are several “ATM-looking things” BUT they are for exchanging cash – not withdrawing money – as you would from a normal ATM.
All 6 of our British cards were declined and no American cards were accepted for obvious reasons, but at that time, we didn’t realize they weren’t ATMs and we just thought we were stranded in Cuba with no money.
PRO TIP: Bring AT LEAST enough cash to Cuba for the first 2 days of you stay. This will give you time to find a proper bank or ATM.
Hotel transfers via the hotel are around $30 one way and meals range from $5 pp at a local-ish place to $30 pp at your Casa Particulares and nice western restaurants. So $200 in cash is a decent bet for 2 people.
What. A. PAIN. This was probably my biggest exchange fail ever – so don’t fall into the same trap as me! We probably lost at least $100 USD because we exchanged GBP to USD in Mexico AND THEN we had to exchange USD to CUC when in Cuba. I think £400 GBP only got us 280 CUC after all the conversions and penalties- UGH.
Due to American/Cuban tensions, American companies, financial institutions, and technically the US dollar are all “banned” in Cuba; OR there are heavy penalties and fines associated with them. However, you CAN use USD in Cuba, but it’s complicated.
Many companies and service people actually prefer to be tipped or paid in USD because the Cuban currency is worthless outside of Cuba. This way, they hedge their risk.
There are 3 currencies in Cuba:
- USD – US Dollar
- CUC – Cuban Convertible Peso (for foreigners & tourism industry). The CUC is pegged to the USD so it’s a 1-to-1 exchange.
- CUP – The Cuban Peso (the “national currency” only for locals).
Notice: If you’re exchanging USD to CUC, you’re going to get hit with a 10% penalty fee AND a worse exchange rate. You’ve been warned.
Currency Best Practice
When exchanging money, you will always need your passport to do so. Don’t forget it! In this Guide for Americans, I’ve also included a few non-American specifics tips as you’ve seen along the way!
However, I think the biggest difference in experience between non-Americans and Americans is regarding currency.
Non-Americans: If you are NOT American, you should bring either Euros or GBP to Cuba and exchange it for CUC. Your debit cards will work at normal ATMs just fine and GBP will get the best exchange rate.
Americans: There are a few options –
- Option 1: Bring USD from America and exchange money at the airport, at your hotel OR at the bank. Due to the 10% penalty and of course ‘conversion fees’ (annoying), you’re only going to get 0.83 CUC to the 1 USD.
- Option 2: Exchange USD to GBP or Euros while in America bring non-US currency to Cuba, exchange at a bank, the airport, or at your casa particulares.
- Option 3: Spend 1 USD as 1 CUC. Most tourism companies prefer USD as the CUC is essentially worthless outside of Cuba. We paid multiple taxis in USD only because we ran out of CUC.
Notice: You CAN NOT use CUC or CUP in the airport!! Spend it all on your taxi to the airport or be prepared to have this be a suck.
Internet (or lack thereof)
Wifi is not really a thing in Cuba as access to the internet in Cuba is restricted and censored by the government; it is also VERY expensive. I would 100% download my FREE Google Maps layer in the ‘offline’ mode so you can use it once you’re inside.
To give you an idea of how behind things are, cell phones only got mobile data (3G) in January 2019 so wifi is a relatively new thing. You should come prepared with your itinerary downloaded on your phone and it would also be worth printing all of the necessary documents as well.
The only places you can access wifi are:
- Upscale Casa Particulares (Like mine!)
- Wifi Parks (you’ll need to buy a NAUTA card at any of Cuba’s ETECSA offices)
- Some ‘Foreigner-focus’ establishments
I wouldn’t recommend buying a Cuban Sim card for your phone because there’s a BIG risk of compromising your data or security. Also, be prepared to pay for wifi in your Casa Particulares as it’s not often free.
Accommodation (Casa Particulares)
When traveling to Cuba, I can absolutely recommend staying in a ‘Casa Particular’ (spanish for a “private house”). The Casa Particulares are essentially a bed and breakfast and are typically owned and operated by local people.
When you stay at a Casa Particular, you know that your money is going to real people and not the government.
Because of the difficult trade situation with America, you can’t actually book accommodation on American-owned Online Travel Agencies like Expedia or Booking.com. Instead, you’re going to need to book directly with the Casa Particulares and often pay in cash once you arrive (unless you have a non-American card).
El Candil Boutique Hotel
We stayed with El Candil Boutique Hotel during our time in Havana and it was our saving grace. We organized a taxi transfer via El Candil and THANK GOODNESS for that because we weren’t able to get any CUC at the airport and we were freaking out.
It was late, we had been traveling for hours, and we were stressed out about not being able to get cash so when I saw our driver I let out a big sigh of relief. Just one more little thing that we didn’t have to worry about.
The transfer from the airport was $30 CUC (or $30) and this seemed to be a normal price after taking quite a few taxis during our time in Havana.
When we arrived, I organized a dinner for us at the hotel so we wouldn’t have to go searching for food so late at night. Not only did we have an incredible 3-course dinner, but all of it was also lactose AND gluten-free (per my request) and tasted AMAZING.
We also enjoyed wifi on the roof and several mojitos so you could say it was a ‘difficult’ life in Cuba for us 😉
El Candil was formerly a grand old colonial house and it was restored to be a Casa Particular (i.e. tourist B&B) in the heart of El Vedado district. Not only are the amenities brand new (which is very rare in Cuba), but they also offer a wide range of services and benefits.
- Taxi transfers to the airport or anywhere else
- Rooftop bar and restaurant
- New amenities, in-room safe, spectacular bathroom, and products
- An in-house spa & salon with massages, nails, hair, etc services
- Tours and excellent food recommendations
- Money exchange with the same rates as the bank
Another absolute perk was the powerful in-house backup generators. There are loads of power outages in Cuba all the time and we never lost power thanks to the thoughtful planning of El Candil’s management.
It’s also worth mentioning that the concierges spoke perfect English and communication was never an issue. I know this can be a real anxiety for some travelers and with no internet in Cuba, it becomes that much more complicated organizing things.
While I hope this Guide for Americans Traveling to Cuba is helpful to prepare with, I know that once you’re inside Cuba it’s a whole different ballgame! You’ll thank me later for this recommendation 😉
Top 5 Tourist Things to Do
- Old Car Tour of Havana: You can organize a proper tour with an English-speaking guide (or whatever language you prefer) for about $130 – $150 USD. Many of the tour guides that I contacted wanted USD over CUC. We were unable to meet our tour operator due to my mistake with times (waahh) so we just asked a random guy with a random old car to take us around for an hour. It was nice enough and only $30.
- Sunset Drink on the rooftop of Hotel Inglaterra: The sunset is pretty spectacular looking over the ‘Parque Central’ plaza with the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in the distance. Fair warning, this is a government-owned property.
- Free Walking Tour of Havana: My FAVORITE way to see a new city is to always go on a Free Walking Tour. You just have to reserve this online for free and then you should tip your guide at the end.
- Stay in a Casa Particular: This is the BEST way to support the Cuban people and to get a real taste of Cuban hospitality. These are not government owned in any-way. Don’t forget to check out El Candil Boutique Hotel and to let them know I sent you <3
- Night out at Fabrica de Arte Cubano: The atmosphere is incredible. There are drinks, live performances, and multiple levels of local art that will give you a better understanding of Cuban life and culture.
I hope you enjoyed my Guide for Americans Traveling to Cuba article! It took me a long time to write, but I hope this takes out any anxiety you might feel when traveling to Cuba.
It’s such a beautiful country and your money REALLY makes a difference to the locals who work hard to create an incredible experience for you.
Before you go, please check out my FREE downloadable Google Map below. It’s the PERFECT resource when you’re inside of Cuba because there’s an ‘offline’ version that you can download and use without wifi. Please also SHARE my Guide for Americans Traveling to Cuba if you liked it with your friends and travel buddies.
Free Downloadable Google Map!
Just press the ‘[ ]’ to download it onto your Google Maps app. Don’t forget to download the ‘offline’ map version as there’s no wifi in Cuba.