If you’ve ever dreamed of exploring the vibrant culture, stunning beaches, and rich history of Cuba, you’re in for a treat. Despite the complexities surrounding travel to Cuba from the US, it’s entirely possible to have an enriching and legal experience. 

Here’s everything you need to know for your first trip to Cuba.

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Understanding the Rules: Tourist Vacation vs. Meaningful Visit


Travel to Cuba for purely tourist purposes is prohibited for US travelers. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t visit Cuba. The key is to fit your trip under one of the 12 categories of general licenses approved by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). These categories ensure your visit has a “meaningful” purpose, such as educational activities, journalistic activities, or, most commonly, Support for the Cuban People (SCP).

The 12 General License Categories

The general licenses cover a wide range of activities. Here are the categories:

  1. Family visits
  2. Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research and professional meetings
  5. Educational activities
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic, and other competitions and exhibitions
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian projects
  10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
  12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

What Qualifies as a Meaningful Visit?

A meaningful visit involves activities that support the Cuban people, engage with civil society, and promote independence from Cuban authorities. For example, participating in cultural exchanges, supporting local artists, or volunteering for community projects are all considered meaningful activities. The aim is to foster genuine interactions and support local businesses and initiatives rather than spending time at state-run tourist resorts.

Who Do These Rules Apply To?

The travel restrictions apply to:

  • US citizens living in the US or abroad
  • Foreign citizens living in the US
  • Foreign citizens transiting through the US

No Prior Approval Needed

You don’t need prior government approval for any of these general license categories. As long as you follow the rules of the selected license, you are automatically considered “authorized.” Be prepared to state your category to authorities, document your activities, and keep records for five years. Carrying an affidavit can be helpful, though it’s not mandatory. You can download a sample affidavit here.

The General License for Support for the Cuban People (SCP)

The SCP category is the easiest to qualify for and ideal for tourists. To comply, you must:

  1. Use Privately Owned Businesses: This includes dining at paladares (private restaurants), shopping at local stores, and using private taxis. These interactions support the local economy and reduce dependency on state-run enterprises.
  2. Stay in Privately Owned Accommodations: Staying in a casa particular (a privately owned bed and breakfast) not only meets the requirements but also provides a more authentic experience. Avoid hotels on the prohibited accommodations list, which includes most major hotels in Cuba.
  3. Maintain a Full Schedule of Meaningful Interactions: Your daily itinerary should include 6-8 hours of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people. This can include taking Spanish lessons, participating in dance classes, or volunteering with local organizations.

Acceptable Activities

  • Visiting and Purchasing Art from Local Galleries: Support local artists by buying their work and learning about their creative processes.
  • Conversing with Hosts at Your Casa Particular: Engaging in conversations with your hosts can provide deep insights into Cuban culture and daily life.
  • Volunteering: Spend time assisting local community projects or educational programs.
  • Taking Lessons: Learn to dance salsa, play Cuban music, or improve your Spanish with local instructors.
  • Shopping at Privately Owned Businesses: From buying souvenirs to everyday necessities, frequenting local shops supports entrepreneurs.
  • Dining at Privately Owned Restaurants: Enjoy Cuban cuisine at paladares, which are often family-run and offer a more authentic dining experience.
  • Taking Guided Cultural/Historical Tours: These tours can provide meaningful interactions and deeper understanding of Cuba’s rich history and culture.

Avoid Transactions with Prohibited Entities

Avoid any transactions with Cuban government entities on the prohibited list. This typically includes most major hotels and government-run shops. Document your activities and transactions and keep records for five years.

Why Join a Tour?

While independent travel is allowed, joining a tour can make your trip smoother. Time spent with local tour guides counts towards “meaningful interaction,” and guides can help you engage more deeply with the culture and people while avoiding common hassles.

Benefits of Guided Tours

  • Local Expertise: Guides offer invaluable local knowledge and can navigate cultural nuances and language barriers.
  • Curated Experiences: Tours often include unique experiences and access to places you might not discover on your own.
  • Support for SCP Requirements: Tour operators ensure that your activities comply with SCP requirements, giving you peace of mind.

Recommended Tour Activities

Consider tours that include visits to historic sites, art galleries, and community projects. Cultural immersion experiences such as cooking classes, music workshops, and language lessons are also excellent choices.

Returning to the US from Cuba

Re-entering the US is usually straightforward. While you might be asked about your trip, enforcement is rare and typically involves a fine rather than severe penalties. Compliance with OFAC rules is usually checked post-travel, not by Customs and Border Patrol.

What to Expect at US Customs

  • Minimal Questions: Most travelers report few, if any, questions about their trip to Cuba.
  • Documentation: Have your travel affidavit and documentation ready, though it’s seldom requested.
  • OFAC Enforcement: If there are any compliance issues, they will likely be addressed after your return to the US.

Getting Your Cuban Visa

All travelers need a Cuban Tourist Visa (or Tourist Card). For US travelers, this is a pink visa purchased at the airport before your flight to Havana. It costs between $50-100 and can sometimes be bought in advance from your airline. For non-US flights to Cuba, a green visa is required. These visas are valid for a stay of up to 90 days and can be renewed once.

The Pink Visa for US Flights

When flying directly from the US, you will need a pink visa. This can be purchased at the airport or in advance through your airline. The process is quick and straightforward, taking just a few minutes.

The Green Visa for Non-US Flights

Travelers flying to Cuba from other countries, even on a US passport, need a green visa. These visas are also easily obtained, typically at the airport before your flight.

Visa vs. License

The general license is a US government requirement, while the visa is a Cuban government requirement. Ensure you have both for a smooth travel experience.

Flights to Cuba

Flights to Cuba can be booked through various airlines and search engines like Skyscanner. US airlines with direct flights to Cuba include American Airlines, Delta, Southwest, and United. Remember, all direct flights from the US to Cuba include mandatory medical insurance, often covered in the ticket price.

Airlines with Flights to Cuba

  • From the USA: American Airlines, Delta, Southwest Airlines, United
  • From Panama: Copa Airlines
  • From Canada: Air Canada
  • From Europe: Air Europa, Iberia, Swiss Air, Iberojet, World2Fly, Air France
  • From Colombia: Cubana, Wingo
  • From Nassau: Bahamasair
  • From Mexico: Viva Aerobus
  • From Jamaica: interCaribbean Airways
  • From the Dominican Republic: Air Century, Sky High

Booking Tips

  • Direct vs. Connecting Flights: Consider the convenience of direct flights versus potentially cheaper connecting flights.
  • Insurance: Ensure your flight includes mandatory medical insurance.
  • Booking Platforms: Use reliable search engines like Skyscanner to find the best deals.

Travel Insurance for Cuba

Cuba requires all visitors to have travel medical insurance, which is often checked upon arrival. If not pre-arranged, you can buy insurance from Asistur S.A. at the airport. For flights from the US, this insurance is typically included in your ticket price.

Importance of Travel Insurance

  • Medical Coverage: Ensures you are covered for any medical emergencies.
  • Proof of Insurance: Required at immigration upon arrival in Cuba.
  • Peace of Mind: Provides security in case of unexpected health issues or accidents.

Cuba Travel Checklist

  1. First Night Address: You must provide the address of your first night’s stay.
  2. Valid Passport: Ensure your passport is valid for at least six months after your travel dates.
  3. Cuban Visa: Pink visa for US flights, green visa for non-US flights.
  4. Medical Insurance: Included in US flight tickets or buy at the airport.
  5. D’Viajeros Form: Fill out this form 48 hours before departure to get a QR code for check-in.
  6. Cash: Bring EUR or USD for convenience.
  7. Toiletries and Medications: Hard to find in Cuba, so bring what you need.
  8. Climate Gear: Hat, sunglasses, and sunblock for the hot climate.
  9. Emergency Supplies: Torch, portable charger, battery-operated fan, mosquito repellent.

Additional Tips

  • Currency: While USD is widely accepted, EUR often gets a better exchange rate.
  • Internet Access: Wi-Fi is limited; consider buying an internet card at ETECSA offices.
  • Local Etiquette: Learn basic Spanish phrases and be respectful of local customs.
  • Health Precautions: Drink bottled water and use insect repellent to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses.


Traveling to Cuba from the US may require some additional steps and careful planning, but it is entirely feasible and incredibly rewarding. By adhering to the guidelines and preparing adequately, you can enjoy a legally compliant and enriching visit to this beautiful island nation. Embrace the adventure, immerse yourself in the culture, and support the Cuban people for a truly unforgettable experience.

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