You booked your flight to Cuba, but now what? There are a few things you’ll need to know before you visit this rather unique country, and I want to make sure you’re prepared to travel before you ever set foot on a plane. So sit down, buckle up, and I’ll walk you through my top tips for getting ready to travel to Cuba.
1 – Don’t Trust the Internet
We all know the internet can sometimes be a terrible place to find good information, and this is definitely true when it comes to doing research for your trip to Cuba. Many of the resources I found provided me with unclear, contradictory, and sometimes totally incorrect information, and that caused a few problems during my trip.
So don’t assume everything you read is correct. Check on your sources’ reliability, never put full trust in forum conversations, and always look for a publication date on the information you’re looking at. Tourism in Cuba is developing at such a rapid pace and travel requirements may have changed since an article was posted.
2 – Get the Right Papers
The Cuban government requires tourists from most countries to purchase a tourist visa before entering the country. In fact, most airlines won’t even let you board their planes to Cuba unless you have one in your possession. But be careful, because there are 2 types of tourist visas that the Cuban government offers, and you need to make sure you buy the right one.
Non-Americans can purchase a GREEN tourist visa for entering the country. This is the standard tourist visa for travelers around the world, and it’s the least expensive of the 2 visas. I’ve seen it sold on various sites for about €30 each.
Americans have to acquire a special RED tourist visa – likely because we haven’t repealed that silly trade embargo yet. They cost more than the green visa at a minimum of $50 each. Make sure you purchase them ahead of time! The cost at the gate is usually doubled for last minute buyers.
Cuban-born visa applicants traveling from America must meet special requirements to get into Cuba that I know nothing about. You should be able to learn more about that from the Cuban Embassy.
Normal length tourist visas are valid for 30 days. I didn’t need any more time than that for my travels, but I was reading that if you need to extend your stay beyond that length you should be able to visit immigration offices in Cuba and work that out.
It’s also worth noting that citizens of some countries don’t need tourist visas to visit Cuba. Check out this list to see if you’re from any of those countries.
Special Visa Requirements for Americans
Here’s where things get strange. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) limits travel to Cuba under 12 specific categories, none of which are tourism. So in order for Americans to travel to Cuba, we’re required by OFAC to obtain a travel visa before our visit. Except… they won’t actually grant you a physical visa anymore.
Instead we use what I’ve heard referred to as a ‘spoken visa’ – or as I like to put it, no actual visa at all. On your flight to Cuba you’ll be handed a customs form that ask which category of travel you’re traveling under. Just select or write in *Education*, and you’re good to go. Whenever anyone asks you why you’re traveling to Cuba – Education. And that’s it!
The reason this works is because the Obama administration added a few rather vague terms to the some of the 12 categories of travel, specifically Education, that allow us to visit Cuba with greater ease than before. As long as we have ‘educational exchanges… the promote people-to-people contact’ we can legally roam around the country as we please.
So if there’s no actual visa, why did I tell you about it? Because it’s important to be aware of the system in place so you don’t get into trouble. There’s a lot of wishy-washy stuff going on with OFAC and the US government in relation to Cuba, and I want to make sure you understand what’s expected of you as a traveler. I’d like to write more about all of this weirdness in a future post.
3 – Understand Cuban Currency
It’s a bit tricky to understand Cuban currency for one simple reason – there are 2 forms of money in Cuba. The first currency is the Cuban Peso (CUP), the primary system of money used by the citizens of Cuba. The second currency is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), a much wealthier standard than what the locals use. This second currency is mainly given to and used by tourists.
This may already sound a bit scammy to you. I don’t think you’re too far off, but there’s a lot to unpack here and I don’t want to get into too much of that right now. I intend to write a more in-depth post about that later. For now, I want to make sure you understand certain conversion rates and can tell the difference between the 2 currencies. It’s good to know about them before you step foot in Cuba.
Currency Conversion and Basic Rates
Here are 2 simple conversion rates to keep in mind while in Cuba. Remembering these will make all of your transactions easier to manage.
- 1 US Dollar = 1 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso)
- 1 CUC = 25 CUP (Cuban Peso)
I’m using US Dollars in my examples since that is what I’m familiar with. If you want to see how your currency converts I recommend checking out the XE Currency Converter for real time rates.
There are a few places where you can exchange money in Cuba. Most foreign currency transactions (such as USD to CUC) will have to be handled at a ‘Casa de Cambio’, sometimes shortened to ‘Cadeca’. The Cadeca is an official government location for money exchange.
But if you just want to convert between local currencies (like CUC to CUP), it’s pretty easy to ask around at local restaurants and shops to see if anyone is willing to make a conversion. Many locals are willing to make basic exchanges if they have the money on hand. And if you’re staying a Casa Particular (private home) or a hostel, your host may also be willing to perform a currency exchange for you.
Note – I listed that 1 CUC is 25 CUP, but sometimes locals will exchange 1 CUC for 24 CUP. It just depends on where you are. This is normal, and it’s really only a few cents difference.
Cuban Pesos – CUP
The main local currency is the Cuban Peso, also referred to as CUP (pronounced ‘koop’), Pesos Cubanos, Pesos Nacionales, and Monedas Nacionales. It’s good to remember all of these names since CUP and CUC sound so much alike when said out loud, and you want be clear about the kind of money you’re using to pay for things.
Cubans everywhere use CUP in their transactions with other Cubans. It’s worth much less than your foreign currency, so finding ways to pay for things in CUP can sometimes save you a lot of money. Some local vendors are very relaxed about offering prices to travelers in CUP, especially in local restaurants and street markets. Tourist business will never take CUP.
Identifying Cuban Pesos
- Portraits of great Cuban influencers
- Monetary value clearly listed in center of bill
- Large artistic image, usually historical in nature
Cuban Convertible Pesos – CUC
The Cuban Convertible Peso, also referred to as CUC (pronounced ‘kook’), is what tourists get when they first arrive in Cuba. Basically any tourist businesses like hotels, restaurants in tourist areas, tour buses, and yellow taxis are going to charge CUC for their services. It’s quickly obvious that CUC are worth a lot more than CUP (25 times more!), and Cubans will do their best to get you to pay them CUC if they know you’re a tourist. (They always know.)
It’s not so bad if you can find places offering goods and services at reasonable prices, even in CUC. And a lot of tourist spots offer musical entertainment you won’t find in local shops, so if that’s your desire then spending a few extra bucks may be worth it.
But you have to pay attention when paying for something with CUC! Some ‘opportunistic’ Cubans may try to give you change back in CUP because they know some tourists don’t know the difference. Don’t let that happen.
Identifying Cuban Convertible Pesos
- Images of Cuban monuments
- Text ‘pesos convertibles’ below value in the middle
- Cuban shield in center
- Solid star along the edge
Important Notes for Americans
Americans, I’m sorry. Once more we have to deal with the political ramifications of the US embargo on trade with Cuba.
No ATM Cash Withdrawal
There aren’t many ATMs in Cuba, but as an American you probably won’t be able to use any of them anyway. If the bank you use is located in the US or is in any way affiliated with the USA, you will not be able to withdraw money in Cuba. You need to have all of the money required for your trip on hand before you enter the country. Be prepared for that.
I suppose if you run out of money you can always sell your bicycle like I did….
10% Currency Exchange Fee
The Cuban government uses US Dollars to purchase goods on the open market, but they also can’t get a lot of our currency due to trade restrictions. So they take it from tourists. On top of the normal 3% exchange fee they charge an additional 10% fee to exchange USD to CUC and back. That’s a lot of money!
For example, exchanging 500 USD to CUC will get you somewhere around 430 CUC, much less than anticipated. Your trip budget should account for that if necessary.
These money problems can be rough, but I got a few ideas from other travelers I met in Cuba that I think might help you out.
If you’re exchanging USD, talk to your bank about exchanging to another cheaper currency first to avoid the extra exchange fees. For example, going from USD -> MXN (Mexican Pesos) -> CUC might be cheaper. I may have tried this if I’d had more time before my trip.
Do you want access to your bank account in Cuba? Perhaps try applying for a credit card through a non-American bank. If that works, you’ll have access to your account whenever you need it. I think I’d like to try this on future travels.
4 – Don’t Expect WiFi Access
Internet access is available every few feet in places like the USA. That’s the power of a developed WiFi infrastructure. But in Cuba WiFi hotspots are extremely rare, and they certainly aren’t free.
The most common way to access WiFi is to find a hotspot hosted by the company ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A.). If you ask around, locals will point you to one of these spots where you can find an ETECSA booth or shop and purchase a time-based WiFi card for your personal use. (Locals may also try to sell you a WiFi card. Don’t buy them.) And you really can’t miss the hotspots, because they will be filled with Cubans looking at their phones 24/7.
A WiFi card from ETECSA should cost somewhere around 2 CUC for 1 hour of access. Each of these cards has a username and password combination that you scratch off and use in one of the designated hotspots. You connect to the ETECSA wireless signal, enter your information, and use the internet. When you’re finished just disable your wireless connection, and you can save any leftover WiFi time for later use.
I thought it was very relaxing to be disconnected from things for the 2 weeks I was in Cuba, though I still purchased a WiFi card for emergency information gathering. I used less than an hour of internet across the whole trip. I challenge you to use even less!
5 – Practice Your Spanish
I can’t stress enough that you need to know some Spanish when you travel to Cuba. Or at least go with a friend that knows Spanish, because someone needs to be able to communicate. Most of the locals I met knew absolutely no English, and if I didn’t have experience speaking Spanish I would never have achieved anything in Cuba. But I guess that would be okay if you’re going to spend all your time in a hotel. Like this loser.
I’ll admit that I was a little nervous since I hadn’t spoken conversational Spanish in about 10 years, but I got into a good speaking rhythm after a few days and I was able to get by pretty well. There is definitely a thick accent in Cuba, though. Many people drop letters from words, particularly ’s’ and sometimes ‘r’. And the letter ‘v’ was almost always pronounced like a thick ‘b’. It took a little time to get used to, and I still had to ask people to repeat themselves by the end of the trip.
Really, if you’ve been speaking Spanish for a little while and can have basic conversations you’ll be okay. And if you find that you just can’t remember some words here and there (my biggest problem) you can always download the offline Spanish language pack in the Google Translate app. It’s a great place to look if you need a little help from time to time.
Well, that’s it for now! I hope reading this list has helped get you ready for your trip to Cuba. I know from experience that researching travel to Cuba on the internet can be a little frustrating, and I hope the rest of your planning goes well for you.
Did I miss anything you think would be helpful? Let me know in the comments! Safe travels!
Want to know when I post? Go to the site menu and subscribe to my blog to get updates whenever I write something new. And if you like what you’re reading, let me know about it in the comments! I’d love to hear from you. Ciao!