Going to Cuba (Legally)

I recently returned from a quick trip to Cuba. As with any new destination, I tried to do as much research as possible in advance. I was surprised with how much outdated, contradictory, or intentionally misleading content exists on the subject of traveling to Cuba as an American. So, for this trip tip, I’m going to focus on some of the basic legal and logistical hurdles involved.

So, it’s illegal right?

Nope, as long as you know and follow the rules. 

First off, the Cubans are more than happy to have Americans come. They’ve made it very easy, and they’re incredibly welcoming to Americans. The legal hurdles are all on the American side, as part of the long-running (and ineffective) embargo. President Obama introduced a number of measures to enable Americans to travel to Cuba in 2015 and 2016. These included the “people-to-people” travel exemption, and the “support for the Cuban people” license category within the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). 

People-to-people was removed entirely under the Trump administration. The Biden administration brought it back for group travel in 2022, though individual travelers are still ineligible. 

The “Support for the Cuban People” exemption has remained in effect since it was introduced in 2015, and those are the rules I followed when traveling to Cuba. The OFAC rules have a complete explanation, but there are a few guiding principles:

  • You must be going to Cuba specifically to support the development of Cuban civil society
  • You must stay in privately owned accommodations, eat in private owned restaurants, and generally avoid putting any money directly into the military or government. 
  • Your interactions with the Cuban people must be more than transactional – going to the beach but occasionally saying “Hola” to the person bringing you mojitos doesn’t count. And all the beach accommodations are controlled by the government. 

For my trip, I booked an apartment owned by a local, ate only at privately owned restaurants (there are plenty of lists available online), and spent my time with hired guides learning about Cuban society, making donations, and generally trying to get to know individual Cubans. 

I believe my itinerary followed both the letter and spirit of the exemption. You’ll need to make your own determination – there’s nobody in the government who will review your plan. In fact, there’s no formal process at all. When you book your ticket, you’ll be asked to select your license category. There’s no paperwork and no verification. Returning from Cuba is just like returning from anywhere else – there are no special questions about your trip, the global entry kiosk doesn’t sound a klaxon, and the customs agents are entirely uninterested in your trip.

To enter Cuba, you need a travel card, which is just a visa that you fill out yourself. You can order one in advance, or buy it at the airport in the US before boarding your flight. You’ll also need to fill out an online D’Viajeros form to register your travel, and retain the QR code it generates. That’s it. Everything else about your flights and the airport experience is the same as the rest of the world.

That’s it – follow those steps, plan a thoughtful itinerary, and you’ll be in Cuba. Be sure to check my “Tips, Tricks, and Misconceptions” article for more details about trip planning and day-to-day experiences. 

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