While opening up to the world bit by bit, Cuba still has a unique way of governing – and that includes matters of money and currency. Here we’ll guide you through all you need to know when it comes to money, currency, and payments on the island!
Yes, that’s right, currencies plural. Cuba operates not one but two currencies, creating dual economies that run side by side, and threaten to make the money situation in Cuba a complex one. However, it’s not as complicated as it at first sounds.
As a short-term visitor to the island you will be dealing almost solely with the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). A dedicated ‘tourist’ currency, the CUC is pegged to the US dollar, so that before bank charges and commissions $1 = 1 CUC.
Cubans residing on the island instead use the Cuban Peso or CUP, which there’s a chance you might receive as change when purchasing something from a local store. It is more commonly known locally as the MN or moneda nacional. Its value isn’t pegged to the dollar, and fluctuates with the international exchange markets, but has a street value of around 20 CUP to 1 CUC and therefore 1 US dollar.
CUCs are generally accepted in lieu of CUPs at this approximate valuation in private businesses, saving you the hassle of having to seek out CUPs as well as CUCs! Government stores selling in CUP will not accept CUCs however. The MN/CUP can be obtained by exchanging CUC at most CADECA offices (of which more below).
This dual economy means that the same item can have different prices, one for locals in CUP, and one for tourists in CUC. The two prices rarely match up (with tourists paying substantially more), which is just a part of travelling in Cuba you’ll have to accept! If someone asks you for pesos, they are more than likely referring to the CUC.
Outside of the largest hotels, you won’t find foreign currency such as US dollars, Euros, or British Pounds Sterling readily accepted as payment. However, despite this, the CUC cannot be pre-purchased outside of the country (and is illegal to export back out of the country), so you’ll need to arrive into Cuba with a healthy pile of foreign currency notes.
When it comes to which foreign currencies to consider bringing, most major international currencies can be accepted at foreign exchange desks, but it is not always guaranteed. Any conversion will have a fixed-rate commission attached, which is controlled by the government and currently sits at 3%.
However – and it’s a big however – US dollars have a special additional 10% fee attached to them, so it’s well worth avoiding the use of the dollar even if you’re a US citizen coming directly from home. Instead, bring Euros, Sterling, or even Canadian dollars, all of which are easily exchanged without the costly extra fee.
CADECA exchange offices
Like much industry in Cuba, foreign exchange is state run (though there is a lively black market), with CADECA offices found at Havana’s international airport and cities throughout the country. The exchange rate is the same at the airport as elsewhere.
As well as changing foreign currencies, CADECA offices can cash travellers’ cheques and provide cash advances on credit cards – though NOT for cards linked to US-based banks (including several Australian banks). It’s therefore vital to confirm your card will work in Cuba before leaving home.
There are an increasing number of ATMs around Cuba, which are an alternative to CADECA exchange offices for those with Visa and Mastercard credit and debit cards looking to withdraw cash.
You will need a pin loaded on your Visa or MasterCard (Credit or Debit Card) to access funds via an ATM.
As above, accounts linked to US banks are unlikely to work. It’s also worth noting that cards are not accepted as payment by most Cuban businesses, so avoid relying on them as a way of paying!
We generally advise against bringing travellers’ cheques to Cuba. Though they can be cashed in at CADECA offices and some banks, this isn’t always an easy process, and limits you to finding cash during office hours. IF you do bring them, cheques are generally accepted at BFI (Banco Financiero Internacional) and BM (Banco Metropolitano), though not necessarily Havana branches of the latter.
The popular American Express brand and Visa-branded cheques generally offer the biggest chance of success, while those of Travelex, Eurocheques, and Citibank run the risk of being refused completely. It doesn’t seem to matter if your cheques are issued in US dollars. Nor do cheques seem to receive the usual 10% additional fee for exchanging dollars. You will need the purchase receipt together with your passport, but keep each of these items separate at other times.
Another downside to relying on travellers’ cheques is that commission is generally higher than for hard currencies, and can be as much as 6%. Finally, travellers’ cheques cannot be replaced in Cuba if lost, reducing much of the benefit of the system of exchange in the first place!
How much money to take on tours to Cuba
Reading through what we’ve highlighted so far, you’ll have noted that Cuba remains a destination where cold hard cash is the primary means of paying for items. With accommodation, activities, and at least some meals paid for as part of your tour, you know these items are already covered. That said, it’s always best to bring more money with you then you think you will need. This will reduce the stress of worrying about running low on money, and also gives you the chance to splash out on an extra excursion or fancier meal should you choose to.
Lastly, always check before leaving home if your bank cards will be useable in Cuba, and avoid relying on a single card as a method for retrieving cash or paying for items even if your card is guaranteed to work. There are times when ATMs might be unavailable, the CADECA offices and banks closed, and card payment facilities not available either.