Visiting Cuba is an enchanting experience, and one that US citizens are now legally able to enjoy. Getting a Cuban visa is relatively quick and easy, but with evolving regulations and various ways to visit Cuba, it can be difficult to know which of the approved avenues works best for you. Luckily, we keep a pretty close eye on this; here’s what you need to know about getting a tourist visa for Cuba.
There are 12 categories of travel that are approved for US citizens to travel within. You must have an approved itinerary (such as one from a licensed tour company like Discover Corps), in-hand, that falls into one of these categories:
- Family visits
- Official business for the US government
- Professional research
- Religious activities
- Public performances
- Support for the Cuban people
- Education activities, or, People to People travel
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research institutes
- Exportation or importation of informational materials
- Certain Export Transactions
Support for the Cuban People vs. People to People Travel: The Differences
Of the categories offered, two of them stand out as most common for a typical traveler looking to experience the country, Support for the Cuban People and People to People Travel. Both are categories with a focus on learning about and experiencing Cuban culture through interacting with local artists and small business owners. Cuba just requests that you plan out your activities beforehand, so before acquiring your visa, you will need a written itinerary as well as your plane ticket confirmation.
These two traveler categories have pretty similar and broad requirements, but the key difference between them is this:
- People to People (as of December 2017) requires both a local guide and a guide from the US for the duration of your stay. While this is completely doable, a lot of the trips that run through People to People now are larger group sizes in order to afford the costs of the guides.
- With Support of the Cuban People, travelers have a bit more flexibility within the visa guidelines. You can go independently or with a small group and local guide.
Travel Restrictions and Travel Options to Support Cuban People
With any of the categories above, travelers will need to avoid shopping at or doing business with GAESA-owned, or military-owned, organizations. You cannot support financially or interact with any of these businesses during your time in Cuba. Fortunately, because a guide is required to travel to Cuba, you will always have someone there to help you navigate the waters.
Under the Support of the Cuban People category, you’re able to travel with a local guide or even build your own itinerary. What this type of visa allows you to do is enjoy Cuban culture and support local businesses through many different avenues. Under the Support for the Cuban People visa, you are expected to spend 8 hours a day engaging with and supporting local communities. This might sound daunting, but a lot of things count towards this requirement. Approved activities include:
- Staying in casas particulares (think Air BnB with breakfast)
- Getting to know your guide
- Going to hear live music, browsing museums
- Touring a cigar factory
- Taking a dance lesson
- Buying art
- Eating at privately owned restaurants (locally referred to as paladares)
For this reason, being part of a small guided group is a great way to travel to Cuba. All of the itinerary and travel logistics are already figured out, and having the local knowledge and expertise adds so much depth and meaning to something as simple as walking along the beach. Not to mention, the guides in Cuba are some of the best in the world; with genuine passion for their culture and history, it’s hard not to learn something along the way.
Before You Go- Things to Know
Whichever way you choose to travel to Cuba, there are a few important things you should know before you take off.
First, you’ll need to know which type of visa you’re applying for and what your itinerary is going to look like, which starts with booking a trip (see Discover Corps trips here!) with an approved itinerary. You also won’t be buying the visa until after you’ve booked your flights, but fortunately visas can often be purchased through the airline itself, or through a third party visa website. Having your printed itinerary, visa, and (of course) passport are all important documents you won’t be able to takeoff without, and a good travel company should be able to help you through the process.
Bringing money to Cuba can be a bit tricky because Credit or Debit cards from the US aren’t accepted anywhere, nor are there ATMs for US banks. It’s important to bring enough cash for the entire duration of your stay. You’ll be able to exchange cash at the airport, and if you’re the super-prepared type, you can bring Canadian dollars or Euros to exchange in Cuba (that way you’ll avoid an extra US Dollar exchange fee).
Once you have all of the details sorted out, remember to have fun and be safe! Cuba is an amazing country that brings you to a different world entirely; the music and energy is infectious, the cars are gorgeous, and the people are wonderful. Enjoy your time!