What You Need to Know About Going to Cuba

It is now legal for Americans to go to Cuba, but, yes, there are rules.

The restrictions on Americans going to Cuba have been relaxed for more than a year now. You cannot, however, go to just to sit on the beach, go dancing in Havana, then bring back boxes of cigars and cases of rum. If the Carribean nation is on your list of places to see, here's what you need to know to make that happen.

Can any American citizen visit Cuba now?

According to the U.S. State Department: As long as the trip falls within one of 12 purposes, Americans can go to Cuba without having to apply for a license from the government. The categories include visits to close relatives, academic programs for which students receive credits, professional research, journalistic or religious activities and participation in public performances or sports competitions. Still, ordinary tourism remains off limits. Travelers have to mark a box to denote the purpose of their trip, and they are required to keep travel receipts for five years after they return. In most cases, they are also expected to have a full-time schedule of activities related to their category of travel.

Going to Cuba
Americans can legally go to Cuba for several reasons. Hanging out on the beach is not one of them. (©Vlad Podvorny/Flickr, Creative Commons)

What are people-to-people Cuba trips?

People-to-people trips are educational programs that fall into one of the 12 categories of general-license travel. Anybody can join a trip, and the itinerary is preset. Because the organized trips are full of schedules of meetings, lectures and visits to artists’ studios, small businesses or community projects, they are somewhat pricey—about $2,500 to $4,000 per week, including accommodations and flights. You'll need to travel with a Cuba travel organization that has an official license from the U.S. State Department.

Can I take a commercial airline to Cuba?

Under an agreement announced in December, airlines can begin operating regularly scheduled commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba. That means Americans will soon be able to hop online, click a few buttons and head to Havana. Thomas Engle, the U.S. State Department's deputy assistant secretary for transportation affairs, told USA Today there could be up to 110 round-trip flights per day under the new agreement, nearly quadrupling the current flow. That includes 20 flights daily between the U.S. and Cuba's capital, Havana, and 10 a day between the U.S. and nine international airports spread across the island. Engle said the U.S. was pushing for unlimited flight opportunities, but the Cubans wanted to establish a limit because of concerns their airports could not handle such a high volume of passengers.

Airlines that have been operating charter flights to Cuba say there's demand for more. "Interest in Cuba has reached levels not seen for a generation," Scott Laurence, the senior vice president of airline planning for JetBlue, which has been operating charter flights from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, said in a release.

But getting there is only part of the problem. 

“The challenges on the ground are many, but it all boils down to one simple word: infrastructure,” said Arthur Berman, vice president of the Latin America & Cuba division for Central Holidays, which books people-to-people trips to the island. “But that one word will, unfortunately, take quite a long while to implement.”

What You Need to Know About Going to Cuba
Cash is probably your best bet when visiting Cuba, as many places do not have means to process credit cards, and ATMs are scarce. (©Douglas LeMoine/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Can I use credit cards in Cuba?

ATMs are few and far between in Cuba, and many establishments do not have the means to process credit card payments. So, cash will be king for some time to come. It might be a good idea to take British pounds and euros, which get a better exchange rate in Cuba than the United States dollar, according to the New York Times.

Where would I stay in Cuba?

Photojournalist Michal McClure, who spent time in Cuba in 2011 and recently released a book about his travel, said most hotels are run by the government, so the money that visitors spend at hotels benefit the government and not the average Cuban, except the citizens working at the hotels who receive tips.

Bed-and-breakfasts are an attractive alternative to hotels, because they include the chance to make contact with Cuban families and often provide good meals. There are hundreds of such bed-and-breakfasts, known as casas particulares, in Havana and popular tourist towns such as Trinidad, Viñales and Cienfuegos. McClure rented a room from a doctor and his wife while in Cuba.

Read about McClure's trip and book: Cuba: Like Stepping Back in Time

How do I call home?

Calls on the ETECSA network, the Cuban state-owned telecommunications company, are expensive, and getting a phone can involve long lines. But Verizon Wireless announced in September that it would allow its users to make voice calls, send text messages and use data services through the company’s pay-as-you-go International Travel option for $2.99 a minute.

What you need to know about going to Cuba
Americans can return from Cuba with a total of $100 in Cuban tobacco and alcohol products. (©Alex Brown/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Cuba is known for cigars and rum. How much can I bring back?

The State Department limits licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba to returning with $400 worth of goods and merchandise, of which no more than $100 can consist of a combination of alcohol and tobacco products.