Cuba Travel Restrictions: What You Need to Know

Young Cuban couple sharing a public kiss
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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. Americans will no longer be allowed to visit the country as individuals outside the confines of guided tours run by licensed providers as allowed by Obama, and visitors will be required to avoid financial transactions with military-controlled businesses within the country, including certain hotels and restaurants.These changes will go into effect once the Office of Foreign Assets Control issues new regulations, likely in coming months.

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 prohibited. The American government has essentially limited sanctioned travel to journalists, academics, government officials, those with immediate family members living on the island and others licensed by the Treasury Department. In 2011, these rules were amended to allow all Americans to visit Cuba as long as they are 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, however.

In the past, authorized travel to Cuba typically took place via charter flights from Miami; scheduled flights by U.S. airlines have long been illegal. But 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. Cruise ships also have once again started calling on Cuban ports.

It was once illegal for any U.S. visitors to bring back any purchased goods from Cuba, such as cigars, and it was also is illegal to contribute to the Cuban economy in any way, such as by paying for a hotel room. However, travelers are now free to spend unlimited amounts of U.S. dollars in Cuba, and can bring home up to $500 in goods (including up to $100 in Cuban rum and cigars). It's still not easy to spend dollars in Cuba: U.S. credit cards generally don't work there (although change is coming), and exchanging dollars for convertible Cuban pesos (CUC) includes an extra fee that's not charged to any other international currency.

That's why many savvy travelers take Euros, British pounds, or Canadian dollars to Cuba — just remember that you'll need enough cash to last your whole trip, given the lack of credit cards. 

Some U.S. citizens — tens of thousands, by some estimates — long 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. 

For more information, see the U.S. Treasury Department website's page on Cuba sanctions.