Visa & Passport
A tourist visa card (visa de tarjeta del turista) is necessary for travelers from most nations. This visa, which is really little more than a piece of paper on which you list your personal information, costs between 15-25 CUC (or €15-25), depending on where purchased. It can be purchased at the Airport in Cuba on arrival, however it should be noted that many airlines will require a valid tourist visa card before boarding flights. It is usually valid for 30 days and can be extended once for another 30 days at any immigration office in Cuba (for 25 CUC) - beyond this you would need a flight out of Cuba within the extended visa period. Canadians are the exception, getting 90 days on arrival and can apply for a 90 day extension. Your passport needs to be valid at least six months past the end of your planned return. Canadian passports must be valid for at least one month beyond the date of expected departure ([www]).
From Canada, the tourist card is normally provided on the flight. It can also be purchased from most Latin American gateway airports if departing from there (Cancun: 250 MXN, Mexico City: USD 25). Please note that if departing from Europe (this may apply to other countries), you will require to have the visa before boarding the plane. Some times, the airline provides these at the airport, however check first that this is the case. Without a valid visa, boarding will be denied (the airline would otherwise get a $1,000 fine from the Cuban immigration authorities).
- UK: Applying for the visa is a very simple process and can be done by post or in person at the Cuban embassy in London. When applying to the Cuban Consulate by post, there is a new charge introduced in 2011 which is a £25 for a non-personal transaction. If you cannot go to the Cuban Consulate you may consider using VisaCuba because it may be cheaper. Through them it may cost £20 in total per person. If you apply in person to the Cuban Consulate, you get the visa straight away. It can also be done through online agencies as mentioned before although they may be slightly more expensive (normally £15 + £15 admin fee and additional postage).
- Germany: You can obtain the tourist card through the Cuban embassy in post. Travel agencies may often offer cheaper and quicker services though.
Regular tourists who renew their 30 day visa are eligible to depart the country (to any destination) and return immediately enjoying a further 60 days (30 days plus a 30 day extension). You are only allowed two consecutive stays in this manner.
If you want to stay with friends or family in Cuba you have to go with your intended host within two days after arrival to a migration office and pay 40 CUC for a 30 days family visa.
Citizens of Antigua and Barbuda (28 days), Barbados (28 days), Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, CIS (except Ukraine and Uzbekistan), Dominica, Grenada (60 days), Liechtenstein (90 days), Macedonia, Malaysia (90 days), Mongolia, Montenegro (90 days), Namibia, Singapore, Slovakia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Serbia (90 days), Turkmenistan who can stay 30 days without visa. (The source of the previous sentence is unknown. Aeromexico staff at Cancun airport claim that only citizens of China and Russia need no visa.)
It is important to note that there is also a departure tax of CUC 25, to be paid in cash when departing Cuba by airplane; this is not required for boat departures. This tax is not well publicized but it is essential to remember it. You will run into significant difficulties if you do not have enough cash to pay this tax when leaving the country. An ATM and currency exchange are available at Havana airport, but these facilities are not as reliable in Cuba as in other places.
Cuban customs can be strict, though they sometimes go easy on tourists.
To enter Cuba, Cuban citizens residing permanently in another country require a current Cuban passport with the appropriate authorisation. This authorisation is known as "Habilitación" of the passport. To obtain this authorisation the Cuban citizen must be recognised a migrant by the Cuban government.
Most Cuban born that are citizens of other countries still need a current authorised Cuban passport to enter Cuba. The Cuban government does not recognise the citizenships that might have been acquired by anyone born in Cuba. This means that all Cuban born are considered to be Cuban citizens even if they have a different citizenship.
An exception to this rule are Cubans born that migrated from Cuba before the 1st of January 1971. In this case they can enter Cuba with a non-Cuban passport and the appropriate visa. However, it should be noted that some consulates are known to disregard this exception and for travellers to be forced to acquire a Cuban passport at a significant cost. The Cuban consulate in Sydney, Australia is one that have been reported to be doing this.
For more information see the Cuban government's web page "Nación y Immigración" (in Spanish)": http://www.nacionyemigracion.cu/InfConsular/TramitesConsulares_NuevoProcedimientoEntradaPais.html
Americans in Cuba
Although the government of Cuba permits U.S. citizens to visit, the U.S. itself restricts its citizens from travelling there, except with a license issued by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. The specific restriction is against spending money in Cuba. However, U.S. authorities consider any visit of more than one day to be prima facieproof that one has spent money there. Furthermore, OFAC also holds that U.S. citizens also may not receive goods or services for free from any Cuban national, eliminating any attempts to circumvent the regulation based on that premise.
With a license
All US Citizens are obliged by the U.S. to have a license even if they go through a third country.
Licenses allowing persons from the U.S. to spend money in Cuba are granted to certain classes of people for particular purposes.
A general license does not require paperwork and may apply to the following:
- Professional journalists on assignment in Cuba
- Full-time professionals conducting academic research or attending professional conferences
- Persons on official government business
A specific license requires paperwork and State Department approval on case-by-case basis. You may be approved for a specific license if you fall into a certain class of persons. Note that a specific license may be granted to an institution (i.e. university, church) under whose auspices an individual may then travel without applying separately to the State department, or a specific license may be applied for and granted to an individual. Some of the classes of persons who may be granted a specific license are:
- Persons visiting immediate family in Cuba
- Full-time graduate students conducting academic research to be counted toward a graduate degree
- Undergraduate or graduate students participating in a study abroad program of at least 10 weeks in length
- Professors/teachers employed at a US institution travelling to Cuba to teach
- Persons engaging in religious activities
- Freelance journalists
- Persons engaging in humanitarian projects
- Persons engaging in non-profit cultural exhibitions
You cannot travel to Cuba for purposes of tourism. However, even U.S. citizens whose primary interest is tourism can get authorization to travel under the auspices of a program whose activities are sufficiently religious, educational, cultural, or otherwise exempt to qualify for a license. It is even possible for an individual with a credible background in, say, freelance journalism or academics, to craft a "mission" for their visit which successfully gets them a permit. Further details and forms are available from the U.S. Dept. of State.
Without a license
Many U.S. citizens instead travel without a license, doing so by way of other countries (many of which have routine flights to and from Cuba) to escape detection. Such countries include the Bahamas, Canada and Mexico. However, U.S. Customs Pre-Clearance facilities now exist at many airports in The Bahamas, Canada, Costa Rica, and Jamaica.
Via the Bahamas
From Nassau, Cubana offers flights to Havana daily, except on Saturdays. Bahamasair offers flights on Thursday and Sunday. This is the cheapest and quickest route flying direct to Havana, especially for those living in the South Florida area.
A common practice for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba via Canada is a two-leg flight: a flight booking for a flight to (and from) Canada and then a separate booking for the flight to (and from) Cuba. The two legs must be booked separately, as airlines such as Air Canada prohibit the booking of U.S. origin passengers to Cuba. Alternately, one could drive or be driven across the border and dropped off in a Canadian city, and proceed to depart from there. This is more easily done for people near Detroit or Buffalo, as non-stop flights to Havana depart from either Montreal or Toronto.
Mexico is considered safer and is probably the most popular. However, it still carries some risk: If one travels from Mexico to Cuba (which won't stamp your passport) and then back to Mexico, s/he will have two Mexican entry stamps; having two consecutive Mexican entry stamps could raise suspicions if your passport is checked carefully. If you decide to re-enter Mexico from Cuba, you could try to convince the Mexican immigration officer not to stamp your passport a second time.
It used to be that you could try to use a birth certificate + US ID to enter Mexico the second time so you will only have one stamp on your passport. This was allowed under Mexican law for US citizens, but since March 1, 2010, all U.S. citizens – including children – have been required to present a valid passport or passport card for travel beyond the “border zone” into the interior of Mexico.
Another safe bet would be to purchase an open-jaw ticket (Cancun-Havana and then Havana-Guatemala city, for example). Mexico doesn't stamp passports on exit, and in that case it would look like in your passport that you flew from Cancun to Guatemala City (or whatever city is your final destination out of Havana).
Cancún is one of the easier gateways, with several different airlines offering daily flights to Havana. Although it may be slightly worrisome to show up not knowing what to expect, if you arrive earlier in the day it's usually possible to walk up to one of the airline counters and buy an onward ticket for same day travel, as flights on this route are rarely full. Try Cubana. Aeromexico flies 2 times a week.
U.S. citizens also travel via countries without U.S. customs stations (Guatemala, Venezuela, Panama, Cayman Islands, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Haiti, etc.) to reduce the likelihood of being caught. A substantial number simply take their chances, hoping they will not be questioned. U.S. citizens are advised by Cuban travel agents not to bring back anything identifiably Cuban (including tickets and receipts) before re-entering the country.
There are no regular ferries or boats to Cuba from foreign ports, although some cruise liners do visit. Yachters are expected to anchor at the public marinas. Also, most ports are closed and tourists are not permitted to walk around them. Private vessels may enter at Marina Hemingway in Havana or Marina Acua in Varadero. Entry requires a U.S. passport, but there are no visa requirements. Your passport will not be stamped by Cuban authorities unless you request it. You will likely be intercepted upon your return to America and fined $5,000, although this is just a formality. You will not be expected to actually pay this fine nor have there been any repercussions or attempts to collect. The only attempt to prosecute was the case of Peter Goldsmith v. United States. This case was dismissed with prejudice in late 2004 in the Miami District Court.