To a first-time traveler, Cuba can seem like a confusing jigsaw puzzle, particularly if you’re breaking free of the resorts and traveling around on your own.

The Spanish spoken here is fast and hard to decipher, many streets have two different names and the country’s fickle and highly complicated monetary situation could fill its own guidebook. 

To help you be prepared, here is everything you need to know before planning a trip to Cuba.

1. Double-check your insurance

You are required to have medical insurance to visit Cuba and will need to bring digital or printed proof of your policy. Random checks are made at the airport. If you arrive without insurance, you’ll be asked to buy a Cuban policy at the airport for US$30.

2. Fill out your passenger information in advance

Cuba uses an online form called D’Viajeros to gather traveler information, including immigration and health data, in advance of travel. Fill out the form digitally up to 72 hours before your arrival in Cuba.

Friends sit on a coastal wall with their legs dangling over the sea and pose for a selfie
All visitors need travel insurance and a tourist card completed before arrival © xavierarnau / Getty Images

3. Every visitor needs a tourist card

To enter Cuba, all visitors need to present a completed tourist card. It’s usually available through your airline (ask when booking) and included in the price of your ticket.

If not, you can purchase one through a Cuban travel agency. Costs range from US$50 to US$85. Citizens of 20 African and Asian countries require a formal visa to enter Cuba. Check the situation for your country before booking.

4. Cash and currency: it’s complicated!

Money in Cuba is confusing, even to Cubans. Since the country abolished convertibles (CUC) in January 2021 and took the US dollar out of circulation in June 2021, there has been massive inflation and the emergence of a rampant black market. The knock-on effect is a bewildering dual economy.

The official currency of Cuba is the Cuban peso (CUP), but foreign currencies are also widely accepted, especially by private businesses who need hard cash to buy non-rationed goods in MLC (freely convertible currency) shops.

State-run enterprises and banks use official exchange rates. However, the prices of the superior services offered by private businesses generally reflect black market exchange rates.

Hence a main dish in a private restaurant in Havana will cost around CUP$500 (US$21). That’s an expensive meal if you’re paying in pesos bought from a Cuban bank.

However, most private restaurants will also accept payment in euros using a more favorable exchange rate. Some will even have a separate menu with prices printed in euros.    

When buying something from a private business – be it a restaurant, casa particular (private accommodation) or taxi service – it’s usually best to pay in a foreign currency. Always ask upfront what currencies they accept and what exchange rate they use for their published peso prices.

Euros is the most interchangeable currency and the one preferred by Cubans. You can also use and exchange Canadian dollars and pound sterling.

US dollars still circulate on the black market, but we don’t recommend bringing them. The best bet, when you arrive, is to keep most of your money in a foreign currency and only change small amounts into pesos for incidentals like museum entry, concert tickets and tips.

5. MLC is a currency with no cash form

The Moneda Libremente Convertible (MLC) is a currency approved by the Cuban government in 2020 that can be used in certain shops to buy higher-end goods.

The currency doesn’t exist as cash and its value is pegged with the US dollar. It’s used mainly by Cubans with special magnetic cards. 

Tourists needn’t worry too much about MLC$, although prices will sometimes be displayed in the currency in state-run enterprises such as cigar shops or airport souvenir stores where you can pay with a non-US credit card.

6. Only some credit cards will work

Credit cards are increasingly popular in Cuba and in many state-run businesses are the preferred (and sometimes only) method of payment.

Despite promises made in the Obama era, credit cards linked to US banks are not accepted. Private businesses almost never have credit card machines, meaning your only option is cash.

A blue classic car passes a cowboy-hatted man on a horse on a dirt road leading into Vinales, Cuba
Cuba is a fairly casual place, so you won't need to pack anything special to wear © mrtom-uk / Getty Images

7. Pack your favorite casual clothes – and men need a shirt

Dress in Cuba is casual, so you can leave your high heels and tux behind. The only real dress code is in cinemas, theaters and nightclubs, where male patrons are required to wear long trousers and shirts with sleeves or half-sleeves.  

8. Cuban Spanish is fast and often informal

If you speak Spanish, you’ll find that Cubans mostly use the informal form of address, rather than usted. In the plural, ustedes is used over vosotros.

If you don’t know someone, it’s best to address them as señor or señora, though you’ll hear Cubans use all kinds of substitutes such as socio, hermano, papa, chica/o and asere.

9. Cuban cities are where the streets have two names

In most Cuban cities, the streets have two names: a contemporary one that is noted on maps and marked on street signs, and a pre-revolutionary one that is still used widely by the locals.

This can become confusing, especially when locals, unaware of the new street names, start giving out directions or addresses using the colloquial nomenclature. Always double-check addresses and, if possible, get two potential names for the street you’re looking for.

10. Understand the local art of queueing

Cubans have to endure a lot of long waits in boring queues, so they’ve invented a way of doing it that doesn’t involve standing in line. In a Cuban queue, you simply roll up at the bakery/clinic/visa office and yell out to the assembled masses, "Quien es último?" (Who’s last?).

Hopefully, someone in a 400m vicinity will answer your polite entreaty with the word, "yo" (me). That person is your yardstick. As long as they’re still around, feel free to go for a walk, sit in the lotus position or buy ice cream. When they get called up, be on your toes, you’re next!

11. Ask questions more than once  

Thanks to heavy bureaucracy, answers to simple requests aren’t always straightforward – or even correct. Probe politely and ask at least five different people before you make important decisions.

12. Bring something to keep you warm on a cold bus journey

Cuba has a countrywide state-run bus service called Víazul that connects all of the main cities and some of the smaller towns. Prices are charged in MLC$ (the same rate as the US$) and tickets must be paid for with a credit card either in person or online.

A second service called Conectando, run by Cubanacán, also puts on buses in peak season along some of the more popular routes. Bring a sweater/jacket for long bus rides – the air-conditioning is akin to a chilly day in Vancouver.

Woman with camera in a candid shot in Trinidad, Cuba
Expect attention, sometimes more than you want, if you're a woman traveling solo in Cuba © Gary John Norman / Getty Images

13. Cuba is considered a safe place to travel

Cuba is one of the safest countries in the Americas in terms of violent crime. Pick-pocketing is more common but not rampant, and is mostly avoidable if you follow a few basic precautions: Wear a money belt, use safe boxes in hotel rooms and don’t flash your cash in public.

14. Solo female travelers report receiving unwanted attention

Solo female travelers report experiencing a good deal of unwanted attention, but it didn't necessarily spoil their enjoyment of traveling in Cuba.

There is a fine line between being open and friendly and harassment, and some men can cross that line by being overly familiar or asking too many personal questions. Learn some key phrases in Spanish that make it clear when you're not interested.

15. Beware of forgeries

Never change money with unlicensed traders on the streets. You run the risk of receiving estafas (forged notes).

16. Bring your own medicines

On one level, Cuba has a good health system (it invented and quickly distributed three COVID-19 vaccines); on the other, it is perennially short of pharmaceuticals.

Bring all the prescription medications you think you’ll need, as well others you might like ibuprofen or paracetamol. If you’d like to donate some medicines to the people of Cuba, it is currently possible to bring in 10kg of medical supplies tax-free (pack them in a separate bag). 

Portrait of an Afro-Cuban woman smoking cigar and smiling in Havana, Cuba
Cigars should be bought in state-run shops and not on the street © ESB Professional / Shutterstock

17. Avoid dodgy cigars

Cuba has its share of jineteros (touts) spinning elaborate stories about super-cheap, high-quality cigars procured by their brother/mother/cousin from the factory. Don’t believe them. Instead, buy your cigars in state-run shops such as the Casa del Habano chain. Cigars sold on the street are invariably factory cast-offs and not genuine.

18. Driving is not as easy as you think

With light traffic on the road, driving might seem like an easy proposition, but with elevated rental prices and cars often in short supply, it’s not always so.

Add in sporadic signposting, potholed roads and a wide array of hazards – goats, horses, bicycles, kids and slow-moving, fume-belching trucks – and you might want to consider getting the bus or, at least, employing the services of a chauffeur.

19. Bring toilet paper and sanitary products

The pandemic made the provision of antiseptic hand lotion more common, but the same can’t be said of toilet paper. Carry your own roll and/or gravitate to four- or five-star hotels when you’re caught short in the city.

Re-usable pads and silicon cups, or disposable pads and tampons are must-pack items if you're expecting your period while you're in Cuba. These are in high demand here.

20. Don’t drink the water

The water won’t kill you, but it might give you a little queasiness or an upset stomach. Fortunately, bottled water is abundant and cheap. An even better idea is to bring your own filter bottle or water purification tablets.

This article was first published Feb 5, 2022 and updated Jan 5, 2024.

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