Updated July 2017
In July of 2015, I boarded a plane (legally) bound for Havana, Cuba from Cancun, Mexico. For many years I had dreamed of visiting Cuba, but I had no idea how I was going to make the trip possible.
As an independent traveler, I knew that I did not want to take an organized tour to the country and have every single day of my trip dictated to me, so I decided that I was going to find a way to make the trip possible by going on my own.
A Brief History of US-Cuba Relations & Why Americans Were Unable to Travel to Cuba
According to the U.S. Department of State, Cuba’s current authoritarian regime assumed power by force in 1959 during the Cuban Revolution and then proceeded to restricted the freedoms of Cuban people, repressed political opponents, and violated human rights.
In 1962, a few years after the Revolution began and tension began to rise between Cuba and the United States, President John F. Kennedy placed a permanent embargo on trade with Cuba. The embargo was strengthened further in 1992 and then again in 1996 with the Helms-Burton Act.
From the 1960s when the permanent embargo was put in place, Americans were not legally allowed to visit Cuba until 2011 when a licensed educational program called People-to-People allowed travelers to visit the country on an educational basis.
In December 2014, President Obama eased restrictions for traveling to Cuba for people falling under one of the following 12 categories:
- Family visits.
- Official government business.
- Journalism. (*Me)
- Professional research and meetings.
- Educational activities.
- Religious activities.
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, exhibitions and athletic competitions.
- “Support for the Cuban people.”
- Humanitarian projects.
- Activities of private foundations or research for educational institutes.
- Exporting or importing information or “information materials.”
- Travel related to some authorized export transactions.
Since Congress has the ultimate power to end the embargo, unless travelers fall under one of the aforementioned categories, traveling to Cuba is still not legally (meaning: general tourism is not allowed).
- 10 Questions on the Embargo, US Embassies, and Cigars (CNN)
- A Brief History on US-Cuba Relations (Time)
This guide covers the following topics:
- The Planning Phase: Booking Flights
- The Entry Phase: Visas, Passport Stamps, Health Insurance
- The Traveling Phase: Money in Cuba
Read More: Accommodation & Travel in Cuba
The Planning Phase: Booking Flights
When I traveled to Canada back in 2015 there were very limited amounts of flights that Americans could use to get to Cuba, and getting on those flights could be a big headache. Most Americans usually had to enter Cuba through Mexico (like I did), through Canada, or through a Caribbean destination.
Traveling to Cuba through the United States
Currently, Americans can travel directly to Cuba from America using one of the following airlines: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, JetBlue, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines.
Traveling to Cuba through Mexico
While I was planning a vacation to the Riviera Maya area of Mexico, I decided that since I was going to be a mere hour and a half away from Cuba, that I would travel directly from Cancun to Havana.
Booking my ticket from Cancun to Havana from the United States without using an agency turned out to be a little trickier than I had thought it was going to be. When I went to purchase tickets online on the Cubana website using my American credit card, the transaction was denied, which meant that I had to wait until I got into Cancun to pay with cash.
There are currently two airlines that operate directly between Cancun and Havana: Aeromexico and Cubana.
- Aeromexico has daily mid-morning flights between Cancún (CUN) and Havana (HAV) and daily afternoon flights from Havana–Cancún.
- Cubana operates flights daily between Cancún and Havana (3:05PM) and also daily between Havana and Cancún (1:45 PM).
I purchased my ticket at Cubana’s Cancun location (Ave Tulum 232 local A1 y A3) and the ticket cost 5,623 MN pesos (roughly $320 USD).
The Thrifty Traveler, a points and miles blogger said that his American card was also declined when trying to purchase a ticket via the Cubana website, but that he had success purchasing one with his credit card for $340 USD via the third party website Cuba Travel Network, so this is another option to book your flight before you travel to Mexico.
The Entry Phase: Visas, Passport Stamps, Health Insurance
A visa is required for all international travelers entering Cuba.
Visas for Cuba from the United States
Getting a visa for Cuba will cost different amounts depending on the airline you fly. Cuban visas from all airlines (with the exception of JetBlue, United, and Delta), must be purchased online through Cuba Travel Services. Here is the most up-to-date information as of July 2017:
- Southwest Airlines – $50
- Alaska Airlines – $85
- American Airlines – $85
- Delta Airlines – $50
- JetBlue – $50
- United Airlines – $75
Visas for Cuba from Mexico
Visas for Americans traveling through Mexico can be purchased for $25 directly at the Cancun airport at the Cubana ticket counter directly across from the Cubana check-in area.
Passport Stamps in Cuba
Most Americans traveling through Cuba will have their tourist card stamped and not their passports, however in some instances, a Cuban immigration officer might stamp your passport. If you are traveling to Cuba legally, there is no need to worry, however, if you are traveling to Cuba illegally (and do not have Global Entry), you may be questioned by immigration officers upon your return to the United States.
Health Insurance in Cuba
The Cuban government states that “travelers shall have a travel insurance which covers medical expenses or a policy for medical expenses with coverage in Cuba…Residents in the United States traveling to Cuba will have to take out their insurance policy at their home country of departure from Cuban insurance companies. The arrangement shall be made through agencies associated with Havantur-Celimar Company. US insurance companies do not provide coverage in the Cuban national territory. Upon demand after their arrival, travelers shall present a policy, insurance certificate or travelling assistance card valid for the time span they will stay in Cuba.”
When I booked my ticket in Mexico, I was not asked whether or not I had travel insurance and when I arrived in Cuba, I was not asked either. For the six days I spent in the country, I did not have insurance, but I would not advise traveling in the country without any.
The Traveling Phase: Money in Cuba
Cuba has a dual currency system: one for Cubans (CUP) and one for tourists (CUC).
The CUC (pronounced ‘kook’) are Cuban Convertible Pesos and is the type of money that is issued to and used by tourists. 1 CUC = 1 USD and can only be obtained within Cuba.
The CUC comes in values of 1, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100.
The CUP (or moneda nacional) are Cuban Pesos, and is the type of money that is used primarily by Cubans. The CUP is about 25 times less valuable than the CUC (1 CUC = 25 CUP) and can only be obtained within Cuba. The CUP comes in values of 1, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100.
*Note: ‘1’ CUP and ‘1’ CUC come in both bill and coin form. CUP coins are always gold and CUC coins are always silver. Make sure you pay attention to the change being given back to you to avoid getting scammed.
Exchanging Money in Cuba
When you arrive in Cuba, you will need to exchange your cash into CUP. The American dollar will be charged a 10% penalty, so it is advised to carry a different form of currency into the country, such as Euros, Pounds, or Canadian Dollars. The airport will not give you the best rate for your money, so exchange the majority of your money at Cuban banks or Cadecas (currency exchange shops).
For more information on exchanging money in Cuba, check out this great article on TripAdvisor.
Using Credit and Debit Cards in Cuba
American credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba, so make sure to bring cash – lots of it.
Looking for things to do during your independent trip to Cuba? Consider some of these options:
I really want to go! I was telling my husband we could probably get in under the Journalist visa (and he as my assistant lol) but he doesn’t think we would qualify. They don’t really make you prove credentials, do they?
Hi Katrina! You definitely should go 😀 Since I went through Global Entry, I did not speak to an immigration officer entering the US, but if you do have to speak to one, there is a chance that they might ask to show some kind of proof (which you could show your photographs and pull up your site).
I have Global Entry too….yay! I have a feeling nobody would even care anyway haha.
Hi. I know this is an old thread, but thinking of going to Cuba. Now that trump has made it difficult again, if we (my family and I) go through mexico, does that mean we don’t have to document every part of our trip and do all the run-a-round you’d need to do if coming directly from America?
Thx in advance.
Hi Charlie! Now that Trump is in office, things could be a little bit more challenging. If you can find a way to fall under one of the approved categories, I do not foresee it being an issue to travel there!
i went in september 2017 and i flew from tijuana mexico to havana. i wasn’t paying attention in cuba and she stamped my passport ! ?
i was worried when i walked back across to the US but they don’t even look. i really don’t see what they can do anyway. i’m going again this september ! Cuba Rocks ! take pesos not us dollars ! and make sure you get travel insurance.
Thanks. This is a great article and very informative. I am trying to travel this year to Cuba.
I am glad that you found the article informative Lexi and have a wonderful trip! 😀
Was the language barrier an issue?
Hi Sy, I know a good amount of Spanish, so I did not have any real issues. I would advise travelers to know some basic Spanish when traveling to Cuba 🙂
Thanks for the Very useful information! I have friends going next month. I went with a cultural/journalism tour 35years ago.
One thing, your Brief History could use a detail like the US sponsored a disastrous Invasion attempt against Cuba which led to ‘rising tensions’ or just site a more ‘Fair & Balanced’ source than ‘State’ 😉
Live the Life!
Hi Ernie! Thanks for commenting 😀 Yes, there were things that occurred on both ends (especially that horrible invasion attempt). I would have loved to see Cuba 35 years ago!
I’ve been itching to go to Cuba for the longest. I’ve seen cheap tix to Cancun lately too. I think I can probably squeeze another trip before the year ends. I write about travel on my blog, so I’m hoping to get in that way…
Yes JoAnna, writing about Cuba on your website would qualify, do it!
This is such valuable information! Thank you! I can’t wait to read the other parts of the series. I definitely want to travel to Cuba next year.
I am glad that you found it helpful Nadeen! Stay tuned for more 😀
Whoa, you’re fast!
Haha, a lot more to come! Can’t wait to read about all of the other places you guys went to!
Nice! I loved checking out the Air BnB spaces for grabs in Cuba…sure to be the next big travel destination!;-)
I loved doing AirBnB at a Casa Paticulare in Cuba 😀
Thanks for the article– much appreciated. I’ll also be traveling under the journalistic license. Do you need to file US paperwork in order to do this legally?
Hello Megan, you are welcome, and no, there is no paperwork to file when traveling under one of the 12 categories. Have an amazing trip!
Have you heard if there are currently any inquiries or requirements for a “full schedule” itinerary when traveling to Cuba? No post-trip questioning?
Hello, I haven’t heard about the full schedule itinerary and I did not have any post-trip questioning upon my return to the US.
Hello! Thanks for the great information! I will be entering Cuba through Mexico City, independently. To clarify, through this manner of travel, as a US Citizen, I do not need to call the Cuban Embassey in Washington to obtain a valid tourist card/visa ahead of time? i merely show up in the airport in Mexico City for my connecting flight to havana and pay for a visa at the counter? Just wanted to clarify if I needed to secure it prior to the flight to mexico, or if I obtain the visa in Mexico City at the airport using just my passport? Any guidance would be a great! – Jessica
Hi Jessica, there is no need to contact the embassy in Washington before heading to Cuba. I flew through Cancun and not Mexico City so the location of where to get your visa will be different; you might be able to find some helpful information on forums like Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree about Mexico City specifically. Have a wonderful trip!
If we go under the educational category, does visiting the museums in Cuba qualify for that? And if we fly out of Canada, then what do we tell border patrol upon coming back into the US what our business was in Canada? Just say we took a trip to Cuba? Thanks.
Hello Susan! I am not sure if solely visiting museums would qualify however it would be best to read what qualifies as an educational trip by the US government. I went through Global Entry, so I did not speak to an agent however I think it would be best to fully disclose your travels. 😀
I would like to travel to Cuba via Cancun/MX City this summer, but am concerned about the process re-entering the US. As I am not Global Entry, would I encounter any issues with immigration upon my return? Do you have any insight into potential legal ramifications?
Hello Andy, I would not advise traveling to Cuba without falling under one of the 12 categories so that you can avoid any potential legal ramifications. If you decide to travel to Cuba for leisure and return through immigration I am not sure what the consequences will be. Sorry 🙁
well, I hope you americans will go to cuba at least once. I am Canadian, and been going since 2011. I go 2-3x/yr for abt 2 wks. Now I have a relationship with a cuban, and more than likely going to go more often. But just don’t go to Havana only. Havana is not all of Cuba. Check out santiago de Cuba. Check out Holguin. Cienfuegos. Explore more than just Havana….
I agree Tonya. During my short trip I only got to Havana and Viñales, and when I go back I plan to see much, much more 😀
Just got back from Cuba. Traveling on business (research for a potential event) but on a tourist visa. I drove from New York to Montreal and flew direct to Havana on AirChina. My passport was stamped on the way in. That informed my decision to be 100% transparent on my return. When asked by the U.S. border official the purpose of my trip to Canada I told him that the purpose had been to take a flight to Havana. The response was a simple – do you have any rum or cigars? Followed by: what was the purpose of your trip? Meetings – to ascertain the viability of an event. So it was a business trip? Yes, but I admitted I did have some fun on the margins. Then the conversation changed tack and he told me how keen he was to visit Cuba before it changed too substantially. When U.S. border officials start talking along those lines, you know you’re pretty much in good shape. Welcomed me back and waved me right in.
Thanks for sharing your experience traveling to Cuba through Canada and the response you received from US border officials!
Excellent post. I’m planning on visiting Cuba before it becomes too touristy. Hopefully I will be able to use journalism as my way in.
Thank you so much Jason. I hope you have a wonderful trip!
Hi Jason, how does one use Journalism? Were they able to check it. I am going next month and my cousin marked Education. We have not signed up for anything. Just as Chanel stated I don’t want to be part of a group. What do you suggest is the best way to do this?
Hey, I have a question. If I fly to Cancun and then from Cancun to Havana, do I still need to follow one of the 12 requirements?
As an American, it does not matter where you fly through, you still should fall under one of the 12 requirements to travel there legally 😀
Thanks for the reply! That’s what I thought, but there were some men who told me that it doesn’t matter when you depart from another country, which didn’t make sense to me because you still have to go through immigration either way.
Hello I have a question I’m a permanent resident from the United States do I still have to show proof If I fly from Mexico Cancun to Havana Cuba
Hi James, honestly no one will ask for specific proof flying through Cancun. There are many (cheap) options flying through the US these days, maybe also look into those and have a wonderful time! 😀
We are flying from Mexico as well. When you got to Cuba how did they verify journalism? Could I say the same thing or put down visiting family? Education? We have not booked through any tour so I want to make sure everything is good once we get there.
Thanks for all the tips!!!! 🙂
Hello Andrea! There was no proof needed on my end as you do not have to mark it down anywhere 😀 If I would have been asked by anyone I would have stated I was there for journalism.
I’m somewhat confused about how the 12 requirements work with visas. When do you declare if you fit one of the 12 requirements? It seems if you get visas at the airport, you don’t declare your reason there. So who verifies the legitimacy of your reason for travel to Cuba?
Hello Jeremy! No one asked any questions during my trip so I did not have to prove anything, however if you do get asked, it would be good to have a reason 😀
Hi, can you clarify the “support for the Cuban people” visa requirements? what exactly is the “support for the Cuban people?” I heard that it is essentially…….a tourist visa….just going there is “support for the Cuban people.” Thanks!
Dear TSP, please check the US Treasury Department’s website for inquiries about what constitutes Support for Cuban People – https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba_faqs_new.pdf
Planning to fly out of JFK in early January, i am a freelance journalist and so fit under one of the 12 categories. I don’t have global entry though. Would i just go to JFK, get my visa, and on my return have to provide itineraries and evidence of my background? Thx!
Hello! I actually traveled out of Mexico so I am not sure about flying from JFK (yet). I would contact your airline carrier to see the policy for obtaining your visa 😀
How did your trip go? What proof did you provide as a freelance journalist? journalism is not my main source of income, but I would definitely consider myself a freelance journalist. Any tips?
Hi LaJoya, when I went I did not need to show any proof. There are flights leaving from the US all of the time now and I have had several friends who have traveled directly from the US and were not asked any questions. Safe travels!
I hope you can shed some light. we are from South Africa and plan to visit Havana in March 2017. We fly into JFK then onto Cancun and fly into Havana from Cancun. We were told by the SA Cuban embassy that Mexico falls under USA entries and that we have to apply at JFK airport? Would you know who I can talk to verify this? Do you have any idea how long this process takes if we have to get a visa at JFK?
Hi Pieter, to my knowledge, South Africans do not have any restrictions visiting Cuba, but it would be best to check with your state travel department. 😀
I’m planning on flying to Havana directly from Cancun, but then returning back to the US straight from Havana. Is this what you did, or did you go back to Mexico first before heading back to the States? Do you know if the Cuban visa you get in Cancun is fine for traveling on a return flight directly back to the US? Thanks!
Hi Lauren! I flew back into Mexico before flying back to the US. The Cuban visa card that I got was returned before I left Cuba, so I do not forsee it being a problem for you to fly directly back into the US from Cuba 🙂
I appreciate all the comments and information about Cuba; Any updates on visas, categories allowed to go on individual trips, any restrictions?
What is your recommendation on the best guide for Cuba. I am mainly interested in architectural work, museums and music.
For the latest information on visiting Cuba, I would recommend visiting the State Department website.
Unfortunately, I cannot assist much with a guide in Cuba as I took an independent trip. Have a great time 🙂
I am a Spanish teacher at a high school and I teach literature and culture from all Spanish speaking countries; would I fall under the 12 categories if I travel to Cuba?
Hello fellow teacher 🙂
Cuban Adventures (http://www.cubanadventuresusa.com/legal-cuba-travel) has great information that goes into detail about each of the 12 categories. If you fit into one of the categories, such as ‘Educational activities’, then it would totally be fine.
Have a great trip!
We had an interesting experience in Trinidad this year on a family trip to Cuba. The shopkeeper returned us change in their national pesos instead of CUCs. This meant it was more than 20x less. Being from Europe and math teacher I noticed this 2 hours later 🙂 and returned to the shop. After a short chat in my broken Spanish with ladies in the shop, they understood the problem and returned us the CUCs. The Cuban people are really nice.
HI Channel, I am traveling to Cuba in 2 weeks, can medical insurance be purchased in Cancun or at the Habana airport?
I am not sure about whether it is available now as I traveled there in 2015, however, here is some updated information that recommends purchasing it before traveling: http://www.inpursuitofadventure.org/cancun-to-cuba/. Safe travels!