Planning this trip to Cuba was the most challenging thing I’ve done to date in the name of travel. Out of all 26 countries, thousands of miles, from 5 years of traveling the world.
Once we landed in Havana, I knew that this place was unlike any I’d visited before.
Had I allowed the logistical challenge of traveling to Cuba as a US citizen deter me from visiting this country, it would have been my greatest mistake.
This Cuba travel guide for US citizens is up to date as of early 2023, based on my experience traveling to Cuba in December 2022.
In this post, I will cover Cuba travel FAQ and share how to visit Cuba legally as a US citizen or from a US airport.
Before you read, please note that there are sanctions from the U.S. government that restrict travel to Cuba.
It is the responsibility of each visitor to follow all laws and regulations, at home and abroad.
This website has a limitation of liability policy that applies to all posts, which you can read here.
This post contains affiliate links. See more in the disclaimer.
Can Americans Travel to Cuba?
Yes. And you can even do so independently.
The key is to visit legally, within the confines of OFAC (Office of Foreign Asset Control) regulations due to the embargo and sanctions.
IMPORTANT: These regulations also apply to non-US citizens that are departing from a US airport.
How to Travel to Cuba Legally
There are 12 categories of legal travel to Cuba under OFAC:
- 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
- Athletic competitions by amateur or semi-professional athletes or athletic teams
- 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 authorized export transactions
The most common is Support for the Cuban People, which requires the following:
(a) General license. The travel-related transactions set forth in § 515.560(c) and other transactions that are intended to provide support for the Cuban people are authorized, provided that:
(1) The activities are of:
(i) Recognized human rights organizations;
(ii) Independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy; or
(iii) Individuals and non-governmental organizations that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba; and
(2) Each traveler engages in a full-time schedule of activities that:
(i) Enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities; and
(ii) Result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba.
(3) The traveler’s schedule of activities does not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule.Source: Code of Federal Regulations
It will not be a vacation where you go to the beach and prop your feet up, buy things wherever you want, and stay wherever you want.
You must have a full-time schedule of activities that result in meaningful engagement with Cubans.
For us, that looked like many, many art tours and private gallery visits where we connected with local artists and had countless meaningful, deep conversations.
No topic was off-limits.
Everyone opened up (including us) and shared our passions, life experiences, opinions, and learned about one another. And yes, we talked about politics.
We were on the go, all day, every day.
And we didn’t really spend time with other foreigners. We crossed paths with foreigners a couple times, but everyone else we spoke to and spent time with was Cuban.
Casas particulares and paladares
Aside from your full-time schedule, you should also stay in casas particulares and eat at paladares.
A casa particular is a room in someone’s house. It’s been a normal way to travel in Cuba for years. There’s an infrastructure around it. You can find them on Airbnb.
Paladares are privately-owned small restaurants. Download A La Mesa for a list of restaurants all over the country. Each listing shows if it’s privately-owned.
The app also works offline, which will make your life much easier in Cuba.
Pro tip: If you’re also a vegetarian, make sure you try Camino al Sol! It’s an all-vegetarian paladar in Havana.
What you are banned from doing in Cuba
You cannot spend money in OR interact with any of the places on this list from the US Treasury Department.
Many are hotels, so pay attention!
I copied and pasted these into a list to have on my phone, then accessed it offline while in Cuba to ensure there wouldn’t be any issues.
Is Cuba safe to visit?
As a young woman who visited 25 countries before going to Cuba, I’ve been in a few…sticky situations. Cuba was amazing.
I never worried about being robbed and just felt at ease the entire time I was there. I tend to be a more anxious person, so that’s new for me.
This is my personal experience and I was not in Cuba as a solo female traveler, so yours could be different.
Is Cuba open for travel right now?
As of late 2022, visitors no longer need to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination or testing before entering Cuba. We brought our vaccine cards just in case, but no one asked to see them.
Please refer to this government site for updated information before your visit.
On our way back to the United States, we did have to share contact tracing information with our airlines using a form before we could check in. It was quick and easy.
Although many online sources claim masks are mandatory in certain settings, we did not see any places where masks were required in December 2022.
Accessing Money in Cuba: 2023 Updates
Everything you need to spend in Cuba must be in cash.
Because of the sanctions, your credit and debit cards will not work in Cuba.
If you try to use them, your bank will probably lock your account and it will take a lot of effort to get it unlocked.
In prior years, you would need to convert money to Cuban pesos before using it. Euros were the best to have because CADECA (the government exchange houses) charged a higher fee on USD exchanges.
As of late 2022, everywhere we went accepted U.S. dollars as payment. This was highly unexpected and deviated from every piece of advice I read online before leaving for Cuba.
However, it is still good to have some pesos for a fairer exchange rate. Some menu exchange rates were awful.
When we were in Cuba, we typically got 150 CUP for 1 USD. The CADECA rate was 110.40 CUP for 1 USD.
We exchanged money at our first casa particular and spent USD on activities, private taxis, and one of our casas. We usually spent pesos on art, food, and coffee.
Make sure you get cash in plenty of small bills. Twenties, tens, fives, and ones were useful. Anything larger than that will be annoying to deal with.
If your bank will only give you large bills, go to Publix and ask the customer service to break them when they’re not busy. Works like a charm!
Is it safe to exchange money on the street in Cuba?
You will be offered money exchange on the street wherever you go in Cuba. Just say “No, gracias,” and move on.
As a general rule of thumb, it is not safe or advised to exchange money on the street. This goes for wherever you are in the world.
The main reason it’s unwise to do this is forged currency. If it came from some random person, it may be counterfeit.
A local friend taught us how to know your Cuban pesos are real. Hold the bill up to the sun, and check the watermark.
The watermark will have a number on it, and that number must match the value of the bill.
If it’s a 100-peso bill, the number in the watermark should say 100.
Again, I do not recommend exchanging money in the street. We didn’t on this trip because we were able to get pesos from the front desk of our casa particular.
If you’re ever concerned about any bills you were given as change, use the tip from our friend for some peace of mind.
I also want to make it clear that we were never given counterfeit bills as change while in Cuba, but these things can happen anywhere.
You’re more vulnerable as a foreigner, because you don’t know exactly how the money is supposed to look.
Getting WiFi in Cuba
If a travel guide says there are only one-hour WiFi cards, it is outdated.
Now, you can access WiFi on a one-hour or a five-hour card.
WiFi is now cheaper in Cuba—it was $5 USD per hour; now, it’s $1 USD per hour.
We only needed one 5-hour card per person for the whole week.
Instead of waiting in the ETECSA line, we bought them from our first casa particular.
Overall, our Cuba WiFi experience was much easier than what we expected.
Don’t expect to be online all the time, but WiFi access is not as difficult as prior years.
On Maps.me specifically, also download the maps of each city/town you will visit in Cuba. In our case, I downloaded the maps for Havana and Viñales. When you have Internet access, put your casa particular addresses in a Note on your phone, so you copy and paste them into Maps.me whenever you need to. Same goes for any attractions you know you want to see.
If you want (and if your phone is unlocked), you could get a Cuba sim card, which comes with data. I don’t see the point for a one-week trip, but to each their own.
You can reserve those online in advance from Suena and pick them up at the José Martí airport (in Havana). If you go this route, you want the Tourist SIM Card from the top menu.
Can you drink the water in Cuba?
In short, no.
There was bottled water for sale everywhere on our trip in December 2022, but I read online before leaving that you can’t bank on that.
Instead, I bought this LifeStraw to have filtered water and it was the best travel purchase I’ve made. Ever.
Our Viñales casa particular hostess took one look at that bottle and pointed me to her giant drinking water spigot for us to have freely.
She was already familiar with the water situation for foreigners and told me it was smart to bring a reusable filtered bottle.
Highly recommend one of these!
Can you check in online for flights to Cuba?
There are too many documents the airlines must verify before they can issue a boarding pass.
You will also need a paper boarding pass for your Cuban health insurance, often included in your departure airfare.
Do you need to speak Spanish to visit Cuba?
Out of all Spanish-speaking countries I’ve visited, Cuba is the main one you need at least some language skills to visit.
There are people who speak English, especially young people, but it is not the norm.
If you don’t speak Spanish and you’re not traveling with a friend who does, download Google Translate for offline use before you arrive.
It won’t be ideal, but it will work when you need language help.
The best advice I can give is to travel with someone who speaks Spanish fluently. My best friend said many times while we were in Cuba that she would be toast without my language skills.
Can I bring Cuban cigars and rum back into the USA as souvenirs?
The answer used to be yes, as long as you purchased them from a private shop instead of a stated-owned one.
That answer is no longer the case, as of late 2022.
Now, you cannot bring any rum or cigars into the USA from Cuba, no matter how small the amount is or where they were purchased within Cuba.
When you arrive back into the USA, Customs and Border Patrol will ask if you have any rum or cigars. If you do, assume they will be confiscated.
What to Pack for Your Cuba Trip
I pack carry-on only and found Cuba to be one of the easier countries to pack for. The climate in December was perfect, with 80s in the day and 60s-70s at night.
Here is a short packing list of the things you need before going to Cuba:
- Mosquito repellent, because the insects in Cuba will eat you alive (I use these.)
- Comfortable shoes for lots of walking
- Cardigan or light sweatshirt
- Flowy/comfortable clothes (You can see one of the outfits I packed below.)
- One active wear outfit for hiking/horseback or bike riding (if you’re going to Viñales)
I hope this Cuba travel FAQ was helpful for you. I know how stressful it can be to figure out what to do when planning. If you have any questions, comment below and I’ll do what I can to help!
Read more Cuba travel guides:
- Cuba Pre-Departure Checklist
- What to See and Do in Cuba (Havana and Viñales)
- At Dusk in Havana, I Fell in Love
- Havana, the Art Sanctuary
- When It Destroys, It Starts with Us
- The Elephant in the Room: Socialism in Cuba