Because the ban for Americans was lifted only about a year ago, traveling to Cuba is still relatively new. I was particularly nervous for our trip due to the lack of information out there – heading to Cuba is like traveling back in time, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t blindsided during our stay. (Plus internet is lacking – so no Googling for answers at any given moment. Yikes!) Here are a few essentials you should know that will definitely help you avoid a few mishaps.
8 Things You Should Know Before Heading To Havana, Cuba
You Need A Visa
While the ban for Americans to travel to Cuba was lifted in 2016, Americans still technically aren’t allowed to visit as ‘tourists’ or for ‘vacation’. If you are traveling to Cuba as an American, you will need a visa (tourist card) listed under one of these 12 reasons:
- 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 informational materials; and
- Certain authorized export transactions.
In most cases, you can get a visa while checking in for your flight at the airport. (This does depend on your airline though, so make sure to check your airlines policy to verify in advance if you can get your visa at the airport or not.) We flew out of Cancun, Mexico on Interjet, and we were able to get a visa before checking in for our flight. For us it cost about $20 usd a person, but I heard it can cost up to $50 usd, again depending on your airlines. Make sure to keep your visa – you will need it when you leave Cuba!
While you most likely will not get questioned on your visa, prepare yourself. Technically you’re supposed to have a clear itinerary, travel insurance, and valid reason under 1 of the 12 categories, although we were never questioned at all while in Cuba.
The visa situation only threw us for a loop once we got back to the United States. While going through immigration in Fort Lauderdale, when asked why we went to Cuba, we blurted the usual ‘for vacation’, in which the officer proceeded to give us a lecture on how Americans aren’t allowed in Cuba for vacation. It was then we corrected our answer to “Educational Purposes” – just make sure to have an answer prepared, even if you are already home. (The Educational option is a common choice if you are unsure which to pick!)
Tourist Currency VS. Local Currency
In Cuba there are 2 currencies: CUC and CUP. CUC is the tourist currency, and it’s what you’ll get when you exchange money at the airport. You’ll most likely only use CUC – it’s used for taxis, most restaurants/cafes, souvenir shops, etc. 1 CUC = 1 USD.
CUP is the local currency that the residents use. 1 CUC = 25 CUP. (1 CUP=4 cents USD) We found that most tourists don’t even see/use CUP, as the smaller, ‘hole-in-the-wall’ shops that use it seemed to cater to almost exclusively locals. Signage also isn’t obvious at times, just stating 25 for a pizza, instead of exclusively saying 25 CUP, which is to be assumed as 25 CUC is outrageous at a tiny cafe.
The few places we saw that used CUP were extremely cheap. (3 CUP for an ice cream cone (=12 cents), 20 CUP for a burger (=80 cents), etc.) As many tourists aren’t aware of the local CUP currency, we felt that when we did go to these seemingly ‘locals only’ shops, we did feel particularly unwelcome at times. (We also don’t speak Spanish, so that surely didn’t help!) We weren’t harassed or anything like that, but we got the vibe that tourists don’t wander in very often, or if they do, they pay in CUC because they aren’t aware of the other option.
The currency is interchangeable, so you can give 1 CUC for a 20 CUP pizza, and you should get about 5 CUP back. Make sure to get accurate change and verify the currency being used though – at every place that charged in CUP, we were shortchanged a bit as shop owners probably assumed we didn’t know the difference with the language barrier and all. We aren’t one to make a fuss over a couple cents, but if you are going to these shops and dealing with CUP, make sure you know the difference between the bills and brush up on your math lol!
To Wifi, Or Not To Wifi
Internet is EXTREMELY LIMITED in Cuba – we didn’t use it at all during our trip because it was just too much of a hassle. Our cell phone data plan was of course too expensive – ($2/mb and $0.50 cents/a text), so we just turned off our roaming and didn’t text at all.
Wifi is only available in certain places such as public parks and some hotels, and you have to buy wifi cards in order to access it. The wifi cards are a couple CUC to purchase, and it’s a few CUC an hour to use the wifi. We have heard though that it’s not that fast, so we just chose to do a mini-internet detox instead. 🙂
When exchanging money at the airport, there is a 3% fee for all transactions. On top of that, if you are exchanging US dollars, they will add another 10% charge! That’s a hefty transactional fee, so try to avoid exchanging US dollars to avoid losing out. We flew in from Mexico, so we ended up using Mexican Pesos. (Euros are also a good option.)
Be Prepared To Answer A TON of Questions
“Taxi!?” “Looking for cigars?” “Pesos please?” You will get asked all these questions 100x over in Cuba. (Especially in the city, Havana.) While we never felt unsafe, it was extremely bothersome to hear the same questions at every, single street corner.
Locals are good at spotting tourists, and everyone is trying to make an extra buck off of the recent tourism boom. Simply because of how we dressed, we were identified as Americans, and to the locals, Americans = money. Just don’t be surprised with the onslaught of questions – you can’t escape it!
There are a number of transportation options in Cuba – the public bus, taxis, bike peddlers, etc. We used a couple bike peddlers and taxis – it’s pretty inexpensive to get around, just remember to set your rate BEFOREHAND!
Taxis won’t use meters, so make sure you know the price of your ride before you go, to avoid any potential disagreement later. A ride from the airport to the city is about half an hour, and will cost you about 20-35 CUC. A bike ride within the city should only be a few CUC’s for short distances.
If you want to take a 1-hour tour in an old, pastel Chevy, these prices can also be negotiated too. While I heard of some people managing to get rides for 10-20 CUC, we found that the standard tourist prices were around 50 CUC. We luckily found someone who gave it to us for 35 CUC – just try to shop around if you want a deal.
Bring Extras If You Can
Many of the residents in Cuba live in poverty, and you will probably get asked for money from beggars. You may also get asked for items, such as shampoo or pencils. One lady even attempted to get our restaurant leftover box as soon as we were done with dinner.
While I thought residents would obviously want money over items, sometimes a few bucks still aren’t enough for the things they really need. A friend told me it’s sometimes more helpful to just give items instead – things children can use for school or personal hygiene products for adults.
While it seems to be quite common for tourists to bring these items for locals (some people seemed to expect us to have pencils ready to pass out), the residents were always extremely grateful for whatever items or food we gave them.
Cash is king in Cuba! Don’t bother with your credit cards, they aren’t accepted. Make sure you bring enough cash too – ATM’s don’t work with American banks, so you’re going to need enough cash to cover your entire trip.
Planning on heading to Cuba? Let us know if you have any questions!
Great tips! I was confused about the visas so thank you for clearing that up for me =o) I would love to visit Cuba and have been talking about a trip there with one of my friends =o)