Travel to Cuba for American citizens has been a back-and-forth battle over the past few decades, and as of November 2017, tighter restrictions have been placed on travelers and tourists hoping to visit this Carribean island.
Travelers must now declare themselves as making a trip that falls under one of 12 categories of travel. This means that tourists may no longer travel to Cuba in the "people to people" category, and those that do make it to Cuba are no longer allowed to support businesses that help fund the Cuban military.
In order to book a flight, lodging, or a ferry to Cuba, you must now declare which category of travel you'll be making first, and as Americans still cannot simply book a flight and head to Cuba, most U.S. citizens will travel with a Cuba travel organization that has an official license from the U.S. State Department, like Insight Cuba and Central Holidays.
New Legislation and Getting a Visa: Who Can Travel
Legal individual travel has always required that citizens fall under one of the 12 categories of permitted travel to Cuba, a rule already in place before Trump's November 2017 edict. Now, however, the requirement is legally binding and you'll need to document your activities to prove you were there for legitimate reasons (other than tourism).
According to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba's official website, trips may be completed for:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines
In order to get a travel visa to Cuba, neither the U.S. Embassy in Havana nor the U.S Department of State in Washington, D.C. process applications, so you'll instead need to apply through the Cuban Embassy in D.C.
Booking Hotels and Logistics of Visiting Cuba
Because of the Trump administration's policy banning American support of military-funded establishments, paired with hurricanes that ravaged the island in 2017, booking a hotel room can be a challenge.
According to officials from the Trump administration, these new restrictions in Cuba were not meant to stop tourism of the country but to "direct money and economic activity away from the Cuban military and security services" and toward businesses owned by Cuban citizens.
Essentially, these new laws hope to encourage visitors to eat at local restaurants, stay in local hotels (or private homes), and buy from local businesses—just make sure you never go to any restricted businesses or you could be fined or arrested upon return to the United States.
While Trump has discouraged travel to Cuba with these new restrictions, it's still possible to go and enjoy the rich culture of this island. However, since relations between the United States and Cuba are suffering under the Trump administration, be well prepared before you go. Be sure to bring enough cash for your entire trip as accessing American funds in Cuba—as well as exchanging them to the Cuban peso—is rather difficult.
Going Solo to Cuba
Authorized tour groups arrange hotels, transportation, meals, and an itinerary that complies with federal regulations mandating that such tours have a cultural-exchange focus, which means they remain the single most popular way for U.S. citizens to get to Cuba.
Going solo, you'll need a passport and a tourist card (which can be obtained at your departure airport), and you'll need to make your own hotel and transport arrangements, of course.
A working knowledge of Spanish can help, too, but remember that the island nation already has experience handling international tourists, so there is more than minimal tourist help already in place.
The changes in Cuba policy don't apply to travelers from elsewhere in the world, and Cuba is among the most popular Caribbean destinations for travelers from Canada and Europe. A number of international hotel companies, such as Riu, Iberostar, and Melia, have built large resorts in Cuban destinations like Varadero that meet the expectations of savvy global travelers. More than two million tourists now visit Cuba annually.
Traveling by U.S. Commercial Airline and Ferry
Although some top U.S. airlines bid over the right to fly to Cuba in 2016, the 2017 restrictions have all but eliminated commercial airline travel between the two countries.
Charter flights that largely originate in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Tampa still remain travelers' only option for getting to Cuba by air from the U.S. It is highly unlikely that Cuba's airlines will begin offering flights to the U.S. anytime soon, as they would have to overcome significant regulatory hurdles in order to do so.
Direct ferry service between Florida and Havana might soon be a reality, though. The legal process for making that happen was well underway before the 2017 restrictions—in fact, Carnival Cruise Lines announced in March 2016 that it had received approval to start cruising from Miami to Cuba, and the new travel restrictions do not affect this type of transit.
Flying From Canada, Cancun, Grand Cayman, and Jamaica
If you don't want to wait for U.S. airlines to start flying to Cuba, or you want to combine a visit to Cuba with a trip to a different Caribbean island, you have options, and not just to Havana but also a wide range of Cuban destinations.
Currently, Air Canada flies daily between Toronto and Havana and Varadero, Cuba, while Cubana—Cuba's national airline—has service between Toronto and Montreal and Havana, Varadero, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, and Holguín, and COPA Airlines also has daily Toronto-Havana flights.
Cancun has long been the gateway of choice for Americans looking to visit Cuba without attracting the attention of U.S. Customs officials, and even though restrictions have tightened, you can still fly Cubana from Cancun to Havana. Cayman Airways also has flights to Havana from Grand Cayman and Jamaica.
Using the Havana Embassy
The U.S. Embassy in Havana reopened in August 2015, as full diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States have been restored. Although the relationship is now strained thanks to the Trump administration, this embassy will still help American citizens in Cuba in a variety of different ways.
Services offered at the U.S. Embassy in Havana include processing applications for new U.S. passports, renewing expired passports, or replacing stolen passports as well as registering U.S. citizens living in, traveling to, or born in Cuba.
The U.S. Embassy also provides federal income tax forms, services to notarize documents to be used in the United States, and limited assistance to U.S. citizen prisoners in Cuba as well as assistance in the shipment of remains of deceased U.S. citizens back to the United States or coordinating medical evacuations for U.S. citizens.
In an emergency situation, the U.S. Embassy will also assist in wiring money to citizens, but don't count on this option to help you if you simply run out of funds while visiting Cuba.