United States citizens can only travel to Cuba under specific conditions, but under current regulations, U.S. citizens cannot travel to Cuba simply to vacation there, even if they go to Cuba via a third country, such as Canada. Additionally, any travel to Cuba must be undertaken in compliance with a general or specific license, which is limited to select groups of people.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the United States Department of the Treasury, monitors travel to Cuba conducted under general licenses and processes applications for specific licenses, which allow travel-related transactions that pertain to Cuba. U.S. citizens wishing to travel to Cuba must arrange their trips through authorized travel services providers.
If you're planning a trip to Cuba, it's important to stay up-to-date with current travel restrictions issued by the United States Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce. As recently as June of 2019, restrictions have been applied to traveling to Cuba that affect who can obtain these general licenses.
General Licences for Travel to Cuba
When booking travel to Cuba, your travel service provider will check your eligibility to travel before confirming your commercial flight—the only legal way to currently get to Cuba from the United States. However, travelers are only permitted to visit Cuba if their itinerary falls under one of the 12 general license categories:
- Those visiting close relatives who are either Cuban nationals or who work for the U.S. government at the U.S. Interests Section, which is the closest thing the United States has to an official presence in Havana
- Official government and intergovernmental organization travel
- Journalistic travel by reporters and their technical and support crews
- Professional research and meeting or conference attendance. Travelers must conduct their research in their areas of professional expertise and be full-time professionals in that field. Conferences and meetings must be organized by an international organization in that profession. Conferences put on by Cuban, American or third country organizations do not qualify
- Educational activities, which are open to faculty, students, and staff of accredited degree-granting institutions based in the United States that serve graduate and/or undergraduate students
- Religious activities sponsored by a religious organization based in the United States
- Public performances, athletic competitions, and related workshops and clinics
- Humanitarian projects
- Support for the people of Cuba
- Activities that are undertaken by educational or research institutes or private foundations
- Activities related to export, import, or transmission of information or information materials
- Specifically-authorized export transactions
These restrictions were loosened under President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2018 to additionally allow for U.S.-based cruise lines and guided tour companies to arrange travel for tourists in Cuba through "people-to-people educational activities." However, a June 2019 announcement from the U.S. Department of State ended these programs as well as travel to Cuba via cruise ships or private vessels.
Going to Cuba on Your Own
To arrange travel to Cuba, you will need to apply for a specific license unless you are going for one of the reasons listed under "General Licenses." If your application is approved, you must arrange your trip through an authorized travel services provider. You may need to provide reports to OFAC before and/or after your trip. You will have to get a visa, carry cash or traveler's checks, and buy a non-US health insurance policy if you are from the United States. Additionally, you cannot buy Cuban cigars to bring back home as they are still illegal in the U.S.
Keep in mind that there is a limit to how much individuals may spend on travel, meals, and accommodations within Cuba. Travelers should plan their finances carefully because debit and credit cards issued by U.S. banks will not work in Cuba. In addition, there is a 10 percent surcharge on exchanges of dollars for Cuban convertible pesos, the currency tourists are required to use. (Tip: To avoid the surcharge, bring your travel money to Cuba in Canadian dollars or Euros, not U.S. dollars.)