Can Americans still legally travel to Cuba?

Last update June 11,2019

The Trump administration issued the new Cuban Policy  last June 5th , 2019. It has confused many, even for those in the travel industry. Is it still legal for American to travel to Cuba? I've already bought my flight, what can I do now?

Old cars cruising around in Old Havana are a common sight

Keep Calm and go to Cuba, it's still legal!

I checked out The New Regulations with the tour operator and travel agent outfitter Sarah Arizaga, manager the Cuban Adventures USA branch that has been sending Americans to Cuba since 2014. Her answer was emphatic. Americans can still go to this beautiful island, and it's fairly simple.

Here are Sarah's answers to my questions.

A Cuban street scene in Baracoa, Guantanamo, Cuba

I thought Obama had ended with the embargo!!
What is needed for the embargo to be lifted?

Unfortunately, Obama did not lift the embargo, although he got as close as he could.  While the president has a lot of leeway in strengthening or relaxing restrictions, only an act of Congress can lift it.  

What kind of travel is allowed for US citizens?

Due to the embargo, only non-tourist travel is permitted, meaning that anyone traveling from the US (not just citizens!) must have a meaningful reason for going to Cuba. The general license represents the meaningful reason, and there are only 12 allowable categories. Most people think this is a paper license that they have to apply for, but that's not at all the case. It is a difficult concept to grasp but it's basically your own statement of which category applies to you. This is what the visa provider, the airline, the tour provider and US customs/immigration (upon return) will ask of you. This statement takes the form of an affidavit that providers will want you to sign.
With the new regulations in effect June 5th, 2019 , the change that affects most traveler is the elimination of individual  and group travel under People to People (515.565b). The People to People category was only a subset of the general license "Educational Travel Activities" (515.565).  However, what many news articles fail to mention is that the same type of individual travel is now legal under Support for Cuban People.   It’s basically just a category change. 

Under the new rules what's the deal with travellers who have already booked their trip?

For traveler who made any transaction prior to June 5th, the new regulations do not apply to their trip.  This means that if they booked a tour, accommodations, flight before June 5th, the Obama regulations are the ones that apply to their trip.  They can still travel under the individual People to People category, and they can still stay in hotel even if they are on the prohibited list. 

Can Americans book their  flight directly from an airline?

Absolutely!  American, Southwest, Delta, United, and Jet Blue all have daily flights to Cuba.  Many third party websites (e.g. Orbitz, Kayak) don’t offer direct flights to Cuba so it is best to go to the airline’s website directly.  I have found that airline reservations staff give out all sorts of wrong information about Cuba, which unnecessarily frightens or confuses travellers, so I always recommend going on the airline’s website for the information you need rather than calling reservations. 


Tourists taking photos of the sunset over a farm in Vinales, Cuba

 Are individual trips still allowed?

Yes, it’s still allowed under the Support for Cuban People category. You can travel on this category by yourself, or on a non-chaperoned group tour.  There are many benefits to being on a tour, even if you are not forced to by the law. Being with a local guide allows you to get below the surface and have experiences and interactions that most tourists never have access to, not just with locals but also with your fellow travellers. For solo travellers especially, Cuba can be quite a lonely place since there isn’t easy access to the distractions we are used to such as social media, television, and text messaging, nor is there a big hostel culture like in other countries.  In terms of complying with the regulations, tours that are designed for US travellers take the worry and hassle out of coming up with the full-schedule of activities.  Also, Cuba can be a very complicated country to get around, it can take hours to accomplish the smallest task such as changing money or buying a bus ticket.  When you are on a tour the logistics are all taken care of, which is a huge relief and allows you more time to absorb and enjoy the experience. 

A man offering luggage transport services in Trinidad, Cuba

How does the "Support for Cuban people" General license work?

Support for Cuban People (SCP) as it pertains to the average travellers, is all about supporting privately owned business in Cuba.  Although it does not forbid staying in hotels or eating at state restaurants, a person under this category would want to stay in casas particulares (homestay) and eat at paladares (private restaurant) to help them meet the requirements of this category to “promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba”. The additional requirement under this category is to spend 7-8 hours a day on activities that “Enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities” and “result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba”.  This can be anything from supporting private businesses, volunteering, interacting with your tour guide or the families in the places you stay.  There are many options.  Not that I believe there is anything “good” about the embargo, but there is a benefit to US traveler in that it forces them to go beyond the all-inclusive resorts and encourages more cultural exploration and dialogue between Cubans and Americans. No other country has these restrictions, so Cuba is simply a beach destination for other tourists, the way Cancun or Dominican Republic is for us.


A man selling fresh produce on the streets of Old Havana, Cuba


So, Americans are not allowed to chill on the beach?

Sure they can!  As long as they have met the requirement for a full-schedule of meaningful activities.  


Can US citizens still take a cruise to Cuba?

No, cruise travel is no longer be permitted. Cruise passengers had already booked will legally be able to travel. However, many cruise companies probably want to cancel. If you still plan a cruise trip to Cuba you should select SCP  (515.574)  and take day tours which would help them comply with Support for the Cuban People.

What about the Cuba Restricted List?

This is a list of entities with which US traveler are not allowed to have financial transactions. What most travellers need to be aware of are the prohibited hotels and stores. The rum and soft drink companies they don’t need to worry about, as only direct transactions with the company is prohibited, so you can still buy them to drink at a bar or restaurant. 

Are there any good places to stay in Cuba?

Cuba has accommodations for every preference.  Hotels are an option as long as they are not on the prohibited list, but personally I prefer casa particulares, not only because they are generally more secure and comfortable, but because they are unique like snowflakes and it’s fun to see how the owners have decorated them, from antique to modern, it adds an exciting element to the trip.  Plus the owners themselves are often fascinating people- doctors, teachers, engineers. People who have stories of living through the revolution, or the “special period”.  There are casas that are more like boutique hotels that offer a luxury experience and are run very professionally, or casas where you can sit in a rocking chair and chat with someone’s abuelo (grandparents).  Casas are also where you can get some of the best food in Cuba! In Old Havana I like La Gargola, it’s comfortable and stylish, the staff is really nice and the owner is vegetarian, a Cuban rarity! But I prefer to stay in Vedado which is less congested than Old Havana and has lots of restaurants and nightlife.  


A man shows the fresh fruit he offers his guests at his private guesthouse in Baracoa, Cuba
Staying in private Guesthouses is an important way for Americans to help meet their legal obligations when visiting Cuba.
Well, If I'm not a US citizen but I bought a flight to Cuba from US, do I have any restrictions?

Yes, unfortunately since the regulations apply to people under US jurisdiction that means that all citizens, residents, and people traveling from the US have the same restrictions. If you are just traveling through it’s just a matter of signing the airline’s affidavit with your chosen category, they are legally only allowed to sell tickets to people traveling on a license so that’s why they have to require it.  If in doubt, Support for the Cuban People is the most applicable category for general tourist travel.  

Do I need a Tourist Visa if I already have a License?

Yes, the license is a legal requirement from the US government for travellers who want to go to Cuba. The Tourist Visa is the Cuban government requirement. They are two different things. Anyone traveling from the US to Cuba needs to have both.

How can I apply for my Tourist Visa?

The airline you fly with to Cuba will most probably sell you the Tourist Visa upon check-in at the airport, or otherwise give you information on how to obtain it. The cost of the Visa when buying from the airlines is about US$100. Even if you are from another country (such as Australia or France), but you are flying to Cuba through the US, you will need to get your visa in the US. The Cuban Embassy in your home country will not be able to provide you one that is valid to fly to Cuba from the US.


 Whoever, you still legal to travel to this awesome Island. Have a great trip!  

Comments

  1. Please Yourself Travel is an Australian based travel agency which specializes in flights to Cuba from all around the world including the USA. We understand the US rules and regulations and can advise and book flights accurately for you. Owner operators Alan & Ginny Crocker have travelled twice to Cuba and Alan also contracts his services to Cuban Adventures - the Australian based company which has been running tours in Cuba for people from all over the world for around 15 years [Sarah is the USA Manager]. If we can help you then pleaseyourselftravel@gmail.com is our email and our website is www.pleaseyourselftravel.com

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