No Prior Approval Needed for US Travel to Cuba
What are the Travel Rules for Cuba for Americans?
Restrictions on travel rules for Cuba came about as part of the American embargo on Cuba (the blockade, or bloqueo as the Cubans call it) which is still in effect after a half century. The embargo was not been lifted by President Obama because it requires congressional approval and is not likely to be forthcoming anytime soon. Obama did ease the rules for travel though.
In the past Americans could travel to Cuba, but only after getting a license from the State Department, or travelling under an organization's existing authorization. This is where the expensive guided tours came about. The tour operators would have a license that allowed them to bring others under the same agreement. They obtained visas for their travelers, chartered airlines, booked hotels, and guided you around the country.
The other, less legal way, was to book a Cuban flight out of Mexico or Canada and go surreptitiously. I was always warned to request that your passport not be stamped in Cuba if you made this choice. The fewer the questions asked at US Customs, the better.
Now these official rules are still in effect, but requirements are eased. There pre-certification is no longer needed, you just self-certify that you are going under one of the 12 guidelines. It has now just become checking one of 12 boxes when booking your ticket; sort of an honor system.
Note: As of October 2017 President Trump has been declaring new restrictions on American travel, but no new restrictions have been passed.
See my July blog post of Trump Travel Changes Proposed.
Also see my post of September, No Changes in Written Regulations. This also gives my latest travel experience in Cuba...Regulations are simple but Miami ticketing is not.
See How to Travel to Cuba for overview.
Travel Rules to Cuba Relaxed
Who can travel to Cuba?
Any American can now travel to Cuba by checking which of these 12 guidelines they are traveling under*.
The laws still say no "tourist" travel is allowed, just pick one of the following 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba when you book your Cuba travel:
1. Family visits
2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
3. Journalistic activity
4. Professional research and professional meetings
5. Educational activities, including people-to-people exchanges, now open to everyone*
6. Religious activities
7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
8. Support for the Cuban people
9. Humanitarian projects
10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11. exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
12. Certain authorized export transactions
#5 Educational/People-to-People is the most commonly checked box.
I have met many other Americans who have traveled to Cuba. Most have gone through church sponsored missionary groups (#6 on list above) or on charter People-to-People tours.
Some Other Notes for Travel to Cuba
Below are a few things to know, but also see Top 12 Things to Know Before Going to Cuba.
Passport: Your passport must have at least two blank pages: one for entry, one for exit. Passport must also be valid beyond your staying date. It would not be good if your exit were to be delayed beyond your passport expiration date!
Visa: (tourist card, tourist visa) In the past you had to obtain a Visa from the Cuban consulate. JetBlue Airlines and American Airlines are offering a "Cuba Ready" booth to purchase at the terminal. Visas are typically good for 30 days and usable over a 180 day period. They are currently charging $50 for this service.
Credit Cards: Forget them. American credit cards do not work in Cuba. Cash is king! Bring cash for all requirements of your stay.
Currency: This is the confusing part; Cuba has two official currencies. Tourists use the CUC (Cuban Convertible currency) which is set at par with the US dollar. This is the currency that you will get at hotels, airport, etc. Local Cubans use the Cuban Peso, worth considerably less.
What can I bring back? Everyone wants to bring back cigars and rum, of course. Americans can now bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including $100 in cigars. Note: See my recent post on Dropping Restrictions on Cigars and Rum.
Health Insurance: This is a communist country with a centralized health care system. Your current health plan will not work in Cuba. You must provide proof of insurance from a plan they approve of.
Airlines will now typically provide this with an automatic surcharge ($25 for JetBlue from ESICUBA and administered by Asistur)
*For latest official information please visit this Department of Treasury webpage. For travel-specific questions, please see 31 C.F.R. 515.560, as well as OFAC's Frequently Asked Questions.