A Richer Understanding: Travel to Cuba

When President Obama eased restrictions allowing *people-to-people educational travel* to Cuba I was instantly intrigued. With limited access for most Americans (also limited knowledge) Cuba was taboo, travel banned by a foreign policy rooted in domestic politics.

Image Credit | Darius Soodmand

I knew there would be great interest in visiting Cuba, the largest island in the Antilles with its perfect Caribbean location and white beaches. I plan to visit the island sooner than later before the authenticity of what makes it quintessentially Cuban becomes diluted.

Image Credit | Darius Soodmand

Although restrictions are relaxed, travel to Cuba is still a no-go for those looking for a true island resort get-away and relaxation. Cellular connections are improving but are far from U.S. standards. Sprint is my provider and has service in Cuba but I’d advise checking with your carrier for rates. What I was quoted is expensive and not worth the premium to me. Hotels and some other public spaces have pay-by-the-hour Wi-Fi, which can cost $5 or more per hour. So if you are adventurous, don’t mind small inconveniences and traveling off the grid isn’t a deterrent here are a few more important things you should know…

Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. However, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel:

Entry Requirements

  • Family Visits
  • Official U.S. Government Business
  • 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
  • Certain Authorized Export Transactions

“Individuals who meet the regulatory conditions of the general license they seek to travel under do not need to apply for an additional license from OFAC to travel to Cuba. — U.S. Cuban Embassy

If your travel falls within one of these categories you are automatically authorized to visit Cuba legally without having to apply for a license. There is no paperwork involved, you simply arrange travel and go to the island. For all intents and purposes we are on the honor system about whether we meet the approved criteria and most will choose the educational activities category, as the general license for people-to-people travel falls under this activity. Travelers utilizing this general license must ensure they maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange between themselves and the Cuban people. Additionally, those relying upon this authorization must keep records related to the authorized travel transactions, including records demonstrating a full-time schedule of authorized activities.

Image Credit | Darius Soodmand

A valid passport for American citizens, a Cuban visitor’s visa (Cuban tourist card), and mandatory Cuban medical insurance is required to enter Cuba. Contact your airline for how to obtain a visa. For example, if you book your ticket on American Airlines more than 30 days in advance, someone from Cuba Travel Services (a company under contract with American Airlines) will contact you to arrange for the $85 visa. A last-minute ticket will cost you $100 for the visa at the Cuba Travel Service kiosk in the airport.

Money, Rum, and Cigars

It is worth noting that US credit and debit cards are legal but do not yet function on a large-scale in Cuba, at least not at the time of this writing. There is a unique two currency system in Cuba, I suggest preparing before you go. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the main currency used by island visitors and it can only be obtained in Cuba, worthless outside of it. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is a second legal currency in Cuba, although rarely used, it is perfectly legal.

You can exchange Convertible Pesos (CUC) for Cuban Pesos (CUP) at any bank and most non-resort and non-airport Cadecas (Currency Exchange Houses). There is no limit on the amount of money you can spend in Cuba nor is there a limit on the value or quantity of items, including Rum and Cigars, you can bring back to the U.S. as long as it is for personal consumption.

Final Thoughts

What a great time to visit, watching Cuba’s social economic and political evolution as it opens itself up to investment via tourism. On a personal note, I am excited to explore the link between Afro-Cubans and African Americans, there is much that connects us to them. One example of such a connection, sitting side by side in Havana’s Marianao district; The Martin Luther King Center and Ebenezer Baptist Church, symbolizing rich historical ties that connect people of African descent in Cuba to those in North America.

Will you visit Cuba?

I remain,


Brian Tramuel is a regular contributor and helms the 'A Richer Understanding' series. He lives with his wife Michelle, their children Geneva and Brian, and their Cocker Spaniel Maestro in Charlotte, NC. They, along with his two older children from a previous marriage, Davina and Aaron, provide a constant source of inspiration. Aaron lives, works and plays in Charlotte and Davina lives, works and plays in Roanoke, VA.

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