Traveling to Cuba: Tips for Americans

Just say the word ‘Cuba’ and people’s eyes light up with a sense of curiosity and wonder. This former playground of the rich and famous has been off limits to Americans since the embargo of 1961. Its white powder beaches, 1950s classic cars and colonial architecture have been drawing international visitors for years.

Until Obama took office and started normalizing relations with Cuba, Americans could only dream about a trip to their neighbor to the south or go there illegally through a gateway country and risk paying hefty fines.

The good news is, Americans no longer need to sneak around or get approval from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control before going on a trip to Cuba.  Nor are they forced to take expensive people to people tours to the island. Thanks Obama!

As long as Americans certify they are traveling through one of 12 approved categories — which include educational, religious and humanitarian trips — they can simply head to the island. Traveling to Cuba solely as a tourist remains prohibited. But what does this all mean? If you can’t go to Cuba for tourism, how can you go to Cuba at all?

You can go to Cuba legally without a license or paperwork as long as your purpose of travel fits into one of these 12 approved categories:

12 US government approved categories:
  • Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
  • Journalistic activity;
  • Professional research and professional meetings;
  • Educational activities;
  • Family visits
  • Religious activities;
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
  • Support for the Cuban people;
  • Humanitarian projects;
  • Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and
  • Certain authorized export transactions

How I went to Cuba:

I went to Cuba under the ‘People to People’ category and you can too! As long as you are having meaningful interactions with Cuban people, and you keep a full time schedule of activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people your trip should qualify. Stay with Cuban families in Casa particulars, take taxi collectivos with the locals, or visit a tobacco plantation and learn about how cigars are made.  As long as your itinerary is full of meaningful educational experiences, you should qualify for this category. Check out the official guidelines here

Wandering the amazing backstreets of Centro in Havana

The easiest way to make sure your itinerary qualifies is to find a tour company online that runs legal people to people tours and copy their scheduled itinerary. People-to-People tours are notoriously expensive at upwards of 2500$ for a week in Cuba. I only spent just 500$ for 10 days in the country, so I would call that highway robbery!

Another category that many Americans are using to go to Cuba is under Category 7:  Athletic competitions. Cuba hosts many sporting events from the Iron Man triathlon to the Havana Marathon. If you go down to Cuba to compete in these competitions you are legally allowed to be in the country.  So get yourself in shape and go run a marathon in Cuba! 

Volunteering in Cuba also qualifies you under the People to People category. Many respected companies like GlobeAware offer trips to Cuba to help build homes or do environmental clean ups. 

The reality:

In all reality, these 12 categories of travel just seem to be a formality now. When I arrived at the Atlanta airport for my flight to Havana, there was a special counter set up right at the departure gate. At the counter you fill out your form declaring your purpose of travel and buy your tourist visa at the same time.  All I had to do was check the box for ‘People to People’ and sign my name on the form certifying that this was true. I nervously handed my paperwork back to the lady at the special Cuba counter expecting a barrage of questions about my trip. I was fully prepared to show her the itinerary that I had planned out and the People to People tour that I had set up. She just took my form and gave me the stamp of approval. No questions asked. 

She handed me another form to buy the Cuban ‘tourist card’ (tourist visa).  I filled that out and ….boom, visa in hand 10 minutes later. On the way back into the United States it was just as simple. The customs agent asked me where I went and what I brought back with me. I showed him my rum and cigars and he waved me on through. Again, no questions about my itinerary or experiences, I was through in under 3 minutes.

I was shocked.  After putting so much time and effort into preparing a meaningful itinerary of scheduled activities I was a little let down that it was so easy to get in and out. There is no guarantee that you won’t be asked questions about what category you fall under, this was my experience, so be prepared to show supporting documents for your trip, like your race packet for the Havana Marathon or your People to People itinerary. 

I highly recommend a trip to Cuba. It most certainly will change very quickly in the years to come. Don’t let the 12 categories or the planning scare you away. Check out my Best of Cuba itinerary HERE




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