The ability for Americans to travel freely to Cuba has been a hotly contested topic for decades, with conservative administrations routinely placing embargos on American tourism and progressive administrations oftentimes lifting those restrictions and allowing all forms of transit between the two countries.
Currently, the official United States Department of State policy explicitly bans tourism to Cuba from the U.S., even on the "people-to-people" programs (licensed guided tours) formerly sanctioned by the Obama administration. As of a June 2019 announcement from the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. additionally "no longer permits visits to Cuba via passenger and recreational vessels, including cruise ships and yachts, and private and corporate aircraft."
However, there are some exceptions to the new rules that still permit travel for families and students who book travel on commercial airlines. Knowing the history and current travel restrictions, advisories, and rules regarding travel to Cuba is ultimately essential to planning a trip to this Caribbean destination.
History of Travel Restrictions to Cuba
The U.S. government has limited travel to Cuba since 1960—after Fidel Castro came to power—and to this day, travel for tourist activities remains controlled largely due to a fear of communism in Cuba. Initially, the American government limited sanctioned travel to journalists, academics, government officials, those with immediate family members living on the island, and others licensed by the Treasury Department.
Relaxing the Travel Embargo
In 2011, these rules were amended to allow all Americans to visit Cuba as long as they were taking part in a "people-to-people" cultural exchange tour. The rules were amended again in 2015 and 2016 to effectively allow Americans to travel solo to Cuba for authorized reasons, without getting prior approval from the U.S. State Department. Travelers were still required to prove that they engaged in authorized activities if asked upon return.
Updated Restrictions and Rules
In the past, authorized travel to Cuba typically took place via charter flights from Miami as scheduled flights by U.S. airlines had long been illegal. However, President Obama's new Cuba travel rules opened up direct flights from the U.S. to Havana and other major Cuban cities beginning in the fall of 2016. Additionally, cruise ships once again started calling on Cuban ports.
It was also once illegal for any U.S. visitors to bring back any purchased goods from Cuba, such as cigars, and it was illegal to contribute to the Cuban economy in any way, such as by paying for a hotel room. However, after lifting the restrictions, travelers were then free to spend unlimited amounts of U.S. dollars in Cuba and could bring home up to $500 in goods (including up to $100 in Cuban rum and cigars).
Some U.S. citizens—tens of thousands, by some estimates—skirted the U.S. travel regulations by entering from the Cayman Islands, Cancun, Nassau, or Toronto, Canada. In the past, these travelers would request that Cuban immigration officials not stamp their passports to avoid problems with U.S. Customs upon returning to the U.S. However, violators faced fines or more severe penalties.
Reinstating the Restrictions
On June 16, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a return to the strict policies surrounding American travel to Cuba that existed before former President Barack Obama softened the country's stance in 2014. As of this edict, Americans were no longer allowed to visit the country as individuals under the "people-to-people" program and most travel would be done by guided tours run by licensed providers.
Visitors were also required to avoid financial transactions with military-controlled businesses within the country, including certain hotels and restaurants. With these changes, some airlines stopped flying to Havana, while others continue to do so; cruise ships continued to take passengers to Cuba and offer group tours from the ships.
Exceptions to the 2017 Restrictions
Under the 2017 rules, Americans could still travel to Cuba independently under some of the eleven categories of allowed travel. Categories included travel for humanitarian purposes and in "support of the Cuban people." Tourists could also still conduct transactions while visiting at local restaurants and shops as long as they are not affiliated with the dis-allowed government entities. In fact, in doing so they were "supporting the Cuban people."
Current Regulations for Travel to Cuba
On June 4, 2019, the U.S. Department of State announced new travel restrictions on United States citizens traveling to Cuba:
"Going forward, the United States will prohibit U.S. travelers from going to Cuba under the previous ‘group people-to-people educational’ travel authorization. In addition, the United States will no longer permit visits to Cuba via passenger and recreational vessels, including cruise ships and yachts, and private and corporate aircraft."
Under these regulations, travel is only permitted from the United States aboard commercial airlines, largely for Cuban families, military service members, and other licensed and authorized travelers.
State Department Advisory for Cuba
In addition to the 2019 travel restrictions, the United States Department of State issued a Level 2 Advisory on August 23, 2018, that is still in effect and states:
"Exercise increased caution in Cuba due to attacks targeting U.S. Embassy Havana employees resulting in the drawdown of embassy staff. Numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees appear to have been targeted in specific attacks. Affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms including ear complaints and hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues, visual problems, and difficulty sleeping. Attacks have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences (including a long-term apartment at the Atlantic) and at Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri in Havana."
The U.S. Embassy in Havana is operating with reduced staffing. Family members cannot accompany U.S. government employees who work in Cuba. Only U.S. diplomatic staff were affected by the attacks. No tourists were involved.
Spending Money in Cuba
If you are allowed to visit Cuba, it's still not easy to spend American dollars there. U.S credit cards generally don't work in Cuba, and exchanging dollars for convertible Cuban pesos (CUC) includes an extra fee that's not charged to any other international currency.
As a result, many savvy travelers take Euros, British pounds, or Canadian dollars to Cuba, which get a fair exchange rate. Ultimately, though, you'll still need to bring enough cash for your entire trip if you're traveling from the U.S. since American credit cards and bank cards likely won't work where you're going.