Whether it's your first or 50th time, descending low into José Martí International Airport, over rust-red tobacco fields, is an exciting and unforgettable experience. Entry procedures are relatively straightforward, and with approximately three million visitors a year, immigration officials are used to dealing with foreign arrivals.
Outside Cuba, the capital city is called Havana, and this is how travel agents, airlines and other professionals will refer to it. Within Cuba, it's almost always called La Habana. For the sake of consistency, we use the former spelling.
Flights, tours and rail tickets can be booked online at lonelyplanet.com/bookings.
Regular tourists who plan to spend up to two months in Cuba do not need visas. Instead, you get a tarjeta de turista (tourist card) valid for 30 days, which can be extended once you're in Cuba (Canadians get 90 days plus the option of a 90-day extension).
Package tourists receive their card with their other travel documents. Those going 'air only' usually buy the tourist card from the travel agency or airline office that sells them the plane ticket, but policies vary (eg Canadian airlines give out tourist cards on their airplanes), so you'll need to check ahead with the airline office via phone or email.
In some cases you may be required to buy and/or pick up the card at your departure airport, sometimes at the flight gate itself some minutes before departure. Some independent travelers have been denied access to Cuba flights because they inadvertently haven't obtained a tourist card.
Once in Havana, tourist-card extensions or replacements cost another CUC$25. You cannot leave Cuba without presenting your tourist card. If you lose it, you can expect to face at least a day of frustrating Cuba-style bureaucracy to get it replaced.
You are not permitted entry to Cuba without an onward ticket.
Fill the tourist card out clearly and carefully, as Cuban customs are particularly fussy about crossings out and illegibility.
Business travelers and journalists need visas. Applications should be made through a consulate at least three weeks in advance (longer if you apply through a consulate in a country other than your own).
Visitors with visas or anyone who has stayed in Cuba longer than 90 days must apply for an exit permit from an immigration office. The Cuban consulate in London issues official visas (£22 plus two photos; £47 by mail). They take two weeks to process, and the name of an official contact in Cuba is necessary.
Licenses for US Visitors
The US government issues two sorts of licenses for travel to Cuba: ‘specific’ and ‘general.’ Specific licenses are considered on a case-by-case basis and require a lengthy and sometimes complicated application process; their application should start at least 45 days before your intended date of departure.
Most visitors will travel under general licenses. General licenses are self-qualifying and don’t require travelers to notify the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of their travel plans. Travelers sign an affidavit stating the purpose of travel and purchase a Cuban visa at check-in when departing the United States via flights. Visas average $50, purchased through airlines or established third parties. Note that the Trump administration has eliminated individual travel under the ‘educational purpose’ license category.
You might need supporting documentation to back up your claim when you book your flight ticket. Check with the US Department of the Treasury (www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/pages/cuba.aspx) to see if you qualify for a license.
For most travelers, obtaining an extension once in Cuba is easy: you just go to the inmigración (immigration office) and present your documents and CUC$25 in stamps. Obtain these stamps from a branch of Bandec or Banco Financiero Internacional beforehand. You'll only receive an additional 30 days after your original 30 days (apart from Canadians who get an additional 90 days after their original 90), but you can exit and re-enter the country for 24 hours and start over again (some travel agencies in Havana have special deals for this type of trip). Attend to extensions at least a few business days before your visa is due to expire and never attempt travel around Cuba with an expired visa.
Cuban Immigration Offices
Nearly all provincial towns have an immigration office (where you can extend your visa), though the staff rarely speak English and aren't always overly helpful. Try to avoid Havana's office if you can, as it gets ridiculously crowded.
Bayamo In a big complex 200m south of the Hotel Sierra Maestra.
Guantánamo Directly behind Hotel Guantánamo.
Santa Clara Three blocks east of Estadio Sandino.
Santiago de Cuba Stamps for visa extensions are sold at the Banco de Crédito y Comercio at Felix Peña No 614 on Parque Céspedes.
Trinidad Off Paseo Agramonte.
US Citizens & Cuba
When President Obama decided to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, decades of regulations started to shift, though some measures still await change (like banking). To further complicate matters, the Trump administration has already signaled a partial rollback of the new policies.
In conjunction with the US embargo against Cuba, the US government ‘travel ban,’ which had prevented US citizens from visiting Cuba, relaxed under the Obama administration. Technically a treasury law prohibiting Americans from spending money in Cuba,it squelched leisure travel for more than 45 years. Currently, visitors undertaking non-tourism related activities are allowed to visit Cuba provided they meet the requirements of special categories.
A little history: The 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton on March 12, 1996, imposes without judicial review fines of up to US$50,000 on US citizens who visit Cuba without US government permission. It also allows for confiscation of their property. In addition, under the Trading with the Enemy Act, violators may face up to US$250,000 in fines and up to 10 years in prison.
Under the Obama administration there was considerable progress in Cuban relations. Bilateral agreements have eased travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, direct commercial flights are operating between the US and Cuba, there’s a postal service between the two countries, restrictions on goods brought from Cuba has relaxed, and there is greater leniency in the granting of legal licenses. However, the Trump administration has moved to limit self-directed, individual travel and direct economic activity away from the Cuban military.
Documents Required on Entry
- Passport valid for at least one month beyond your departure date
- Cuba 'tourist card' filled out correctly
- Proof of travel medical insurance (random checks at airport)
- Evidence of sufficient funds for the duration of your stay
- Return air ticket
Cuban customs regulations are complicated. For the full up-to-date scoop see www.aduana.co.cu.
Travelers are allowed to bring in personal belongings including photography equipment, binoculars, a musical instrument, radio, personal computer, tent, fishing rod, bicycle, canoe and other sporting gear, and up to 10kg of medicines. Canned, processed and dried food are no problem, nor are pets (as long as they have veterinary certification and proof of rabies vaccination).
Items that do not fit into the categories mentioned above are subject to a 100% customs duty to a maximum of CUC$1000.
Items prohibited from entry into Cuba include narcotics, explosives, pornography, electrical appliances broadly defined, light motor vehicles, car engines and products of animal origin.
You are allowed to export 50 boxed cigars duty-free (or 23 singles) and up to US$5000 (or the equivalent) in cash.
Exporting undocumented art and items of cultural patrimony is restricted and involves fees. Normally, when you buy art you will be given an official 'seal' at the point of sale. Check this before you buy. If you don't get one, you'll need to obtain one from the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales in Havana. Bring the objects here for inspection, fill in a form, pay a fee of between CUC$10 and CUC$30, which covers from one to five pieces of artwork and return 24 hours later to pick up the certificate.
Travelers should check local import laws in their home country regarding Cuban cigars. Some countries, including Australia, charge duty on imported Cuban cigars.