Updated July 2014.
Locally Sourced Cuba Tours as part of the Locally Sourced Tours Group welcomes US travellers to Cuba on one of our authentic Cuba Tours. Please read on for our complete guide to American travel to Cuba.
The OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) states that
“Authorized travelers wishing to make their own travel arrangements without the use of a TSP (OFAC Authorized Travel Service Provider) must handle those arrangements directly with travel service providers that are located outside the United States and that are not subject to U.S. jurisdiction.”
There are three possible ways US citizens can travel to Cuba:
- Under a General License
- Under a Specific license as issued by the U.S. Treasury Office (people-to-people)
- Travel without a license, taking precautions to avoid a possible fine handed out by the OFAC
- Can I legally Travel to Cuba?
- Obtaining a General License for Cuba Travel
- Obtaining a Special License for Cuba Travel
- Travelling to Cuba without a License
- Useful Legal Information
- Entering Cuba through a Gateway Country
- Obtaining a Cuba Visa (Cuba Tourist Card)
- Travel Insurance
- Spending money in Cuba
- Paying us for your Cuba Tour
Can I legally Travel to Cuba?
As the rules and regulations currently stand, it is illegal for U.S. citizens and residents to holiday in Cuba if you have not obtained a general license or special license. This however doesn’t stop thousands of US citizens traveling to Cuba every year without being caught/ fined.
At last estimate, there were about 150,000 Americans traveling to Cuba every year, one third of these doing so without a license.
Below is a guide for U.S travellers wanting to go to Cuba, either by obtaining a license legally or travelling without a license illegally. If you do decide to travel to Cuba illegally, we offer advice as to the best precautions to take, so you don’t get detected.
In actual fact, it currently isn’t illegal for US residents to travel to Cuba – freedom of travel is enshrined in the US constitution. However US residents are legally prevented from spending money in Cuba. As a tourist in Cuba you will require funds to spend on food, water, accommodation and other necessities – and therefore this equates to effectively being banned from traveling there.
For a full list of rules and regulations pertaining to US citizens traveling to Cuba, please visit the U.S State Department website.
Obtaining a General License for Cuba Travel
A general license is a “do-it-yourself” license which is free with no fees involved. Those wishing to travel on a general license do not need to fill out an application or seek permission. All that is requires is that the Americn traveller produces documentation showing they visited Cuba under the spirit/ intent of the regulations.
The OFAC office states:
“Specific licenses are NOT ISSUED for transactions that are authorized pursuant to the provisions of a general license. Those individuals who determine that their activities are authorized by a general license must be able to document that their travel qualifies under that general license and must keep records that are required to be furnished to OFAC or other law enforcement officials (e.g., U.S. Customs and Border Protection) upon demand for a period of five years after the travel transactions take place”.
Those who qualify for a general license include: artists, religious devotees, volunteers, professionals, cultural workers, musicians and retired persons whose avocation engages them on a regular basis.
If your travel purpose does not qualify for a general license and you still want to travel legally – the document above also outlines the requirements for making an application to travel under a special license.
General License: Overview and requirements
- Regularly employed/ engaged in professional capacity
- Research findings have a substantial chance of public dissemination
- You personally prepare the license documentation
- Travel is academic and non-commercial
- Your travel equates to a full research schedule
- You take the documentation with you – only to present to US immigration officials upon return and only if asked to do so.
To prepare your general license:
- Write out a Travel Affidavit
- Write a research letter outlining your project. Download some Sample license letter templates here
- Get your employer, agency, organisation, church etc. to write a letter of support, providing reasons for your travel to Cuba (include a CV/ Resume if relevant
- Book a tour (the itinerary can form part of your General Research License documentation)
- Take a copy of the “OFAC Application guidelines” with you
These documents together become you General License to travel to Cuba. You are required to keep this documentation for 5 years.
Obtaining a Special License for Cuba Travel
If you are unable to fulfill the requirements set out to obtain a general license, and do not wish to travel illegally to Cuba – there is the option to try and apply for a Special License from the OFAC.
Special Licenses are granted on a case-by-case basis only if consistent with one of the categories of ‘specific licenses’ describe in the document downloaded below
OFAC: what you need to know about U.S Sanctions to Cuba (Section III pages 9-11)
You can apply for a special license (including a people-to-people license – 515.565(b)(2)) from the OFAC through the online form below:
To be eligible to obtain a Special License you must:
- Read the OFAC Application Guidelines in order to determine if you are eligible for the license
- Submit your application in letter format or using the online license application
- If you are applying by mail, post to – Licensing Division, Office of Foreign Assets Control, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20220
It is important to understand that the OFAC doesn’t give out Special Licenses in great numbers. If you do decide to apply for a special license you should never then travel to Cuba under a general license (or no license) as you run a greater risk of being caught and possibly fined.
Travelling to Cuba without a License
For those people who wish to travel to Cuba without first obtaining a license, there are a number of ways to go about avoiding detections.
Getting to Cuba
The first hurdle for unlicensed Americans travelling to Cuba is getting to Cuba in the first place. With no commercial flights out of the US, Americans need to first travel to a ‘gateway’ country and then onto Cuba. The most common ‘gateway destinations’ for American’s are Cancun, Mexico City, Toronto, Montreal, Panama City and Nassau.
Mexico seems to be the gateway preferred by US travellers, with minimal risk of detection.
Precautions that should be taken
- Mexico officials won’t stamp your passport on exit
- Cuban immigration officials do stamp travellers passports on entry (a relatively new occurrence), however they will not stamp American passports if they are travelling without a license. You should remind them of this immediately to ensure your passport is not stamped
- Make sure you remove all luggage tags from checked luggage (and carry on)
- Dispose of all paperwork that indicates you spent time in Cuba (travel insurance, plane tickets etc.)
- Do not list Cuba as a destination you have visited on tour Customs form
- Don’t bring any Cuban souvenirs back with you. Even non-American’s will have these seized by US customs. If you any of these items are found, they are all most likely readily available for purchase in the gateway country you have visited anyway
On occasions, people have been unable to bring themselves to lie to US immigration officials and they have just been waved through. Immigration officials can often not be bothered with the extra paper work, and are far more interested in catching businesses with dealings with Cuba.
If purchasing your air tickets to Cuba with a credit card – make sure there is no reference to Cuba on the credit card bill.
Useful Legal Information
Amnesty International has a standing offer of legal representation to anyone that wants to legally challenge any punitive action that the Treasury Department might want to take. They have also said that they will declare the next American to be jailed for traveling to Cuba to be “a prisoner of conscience”.
Upon re-entry to the United States, there are a number of questions you are required to answer such as: What is your name, what is your address, what is your occupation, what was the purpose of your trip business or pleasure, which countries have you been to, and for how long, how much money are you carrying, do you have anything to declare, what do you have in your luggage or on your person?
If you are asked more than these normal questions, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild advises you to state: “I have been advised by my counsel to not answer any further questions and to refrain from any additional comment. Any further inquiries should be directed to my counsel”:
A “WALL OF LAWYERS” has been established to help those being hassled or having received threatening letters or fines.
National Lawyers Guild (Art Heitzer)
414-273-1040 Ex 12, FAX 414-273-4859, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Center for Constitutional Rights (Michael Ratner), 212-614-6464, FAX 212-614-6499, 666 Broadway, New York, NY 10012, Email email@example.com
Entering Cuba through a Gateway Country
There are many gateway destinations you can enter Cuba through.
The most popular include – Mexico, Canada, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Panama.
You could book your flights through the Cuba Travel Network – as they will not bill you with any reference to Cuba (Caribbean Travel Network).
Obtaining a Cuba Visa (Cuba Tourist Card)
A Tourist Visa Card is required to visit Cuba. Most airlines that fly direct into Cuba require it to be presented at check-in or you will be denied boarding. It is valid for 30 days and extendable for a further 30 days, except for Canadians who receive a 90-day visa.
As a rule of thumb, obtaining a Cuba Tourist Card is a simple process when departing from North/Central/South America and the Caribbean.
You will always either be given the Tourist Card as part of your ticket or be afforded the opportunity to purchase the Tourist Card right at the airport when you’re departing from Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Grand Cayman, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, etc.
It is important to note that the Cuba Visa is not attached to your passport and your passport is not stamped (remember to specifically request this to be sure) – so there is no evidence that your passport has ever travelled to Cuba.
The cost of the Cuba Visa is normally around USD425 and you might have to pay in the local currency of the country you are departing for Cuba.
There is a 25CUC departure tax you will need to pay when you leave Cuba. Make sure you have this prior to arriving at the airport as the ATM or foreign currency exchange can often be closed.
The Cuban government and Locally Sourced Cuba Tours requires you to be covered by medical insurance during your time in Cuba. For American Travellers there is a local Cuban Travel Insurance provider you can book through. This can be done on arrival in Cuba, however we recommend getting the travel insurance before you go and are happy to help here. Just get in touch with one of our team and we will organize this for you.
Spending money in Cuba
If you book a tour with Locally Sourced Cuba Tours we will take care of travel-related services such as accommodation, transportation and guide services. You will however still need spending money on tour.
It is very important to note that US issued credit cards WILL NOT WORK in Cuba.
To obtain money in Cuba you will need to:
- A credit card from a non-US bank which can make cash advances. Visa is best as MasterCard will not work in ATM’s
- Cash in either Euro’s, Great British Pounds or Canadian Dollars (not US dollars as you will be charged an extra 10% to exchange)
- Travellers Cheques (same currencies as above)
- Ask our team – we are more than happy to provide advice and assitance
Paying us for your Cuba Tour
We accept both credit card and international bank transfers. Our bank account carries the name of our parent company – Locally Sourced Tours Ltd. (no mention of Cuba).
If you pay by credit card through our secure online facility – there will be no mention of Cuba on your credit card statement.