Legal Travel to Cuba from the U.S., 2017
For over two years, there have been many changes to the regulations regarding travel to Cuba. In December 2014, President Obama announced the first wave of amendments that would make it easier for those under U.S. jurisdiction* to travel to Cuba.
I have traveled many times to Cuba since these changes. From October of 2015 to more recently in April 2017. It took me months to fully prepare for my first trip because I wanted to go stress-free, legally, and without having to fork over thousands of dollars on the educational “people-to-people” guided tour (how Jay-Z and Beyonce went). I was so prepared that even when I got pulled over at immigration (see below part XIII [c]), I answered every question honestly, and was let go within 20 minutes.
Then, on March 15, 2016, the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Treasury announced additional significant changes that further eased the restrictions. Now, virtually any U.S. citizen can legally travel on their own to Cuba under the educational People-to-People category without a tour organization. But you should know how.
* Recently updated October 2017*
I. Legal Resources for Cuba Travel
The first and most important thing you should do is to familiarize yourself directly with the language in the regulations. The most important information resource straight from the U.S. Treasury page are:
- Most recent amendments to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations from 7/25/2017
- Federal Register Regulations
Download these PDFs onto your phone. They can be useful if you’re pulled over by immigration like I was.
II. Quick Summary of the Restrictions for Legal Cuba Travel:
Contrary to popular misconception for decades, and as of today, October 2017, going to Cuba for “tourism” is still ILLEGAL because the U.S. embargo against Cuba is still in place. Only Congress can lift the embargo. So this means you still can’t go to Cuba to relax, for pleasure, or for recreational activities. BUT! The Obama administration relieved the stringency of these regulations. You can go IF you have a purpose other than happiness (just kidding, kinda).
Related: Ten Reasons to End the U.S. Embargo
- You still must have a purpose, other than tourism, to go. There are twelve self-licensed categories for you to choose from (see section III below).
- The best part of the recent regulatory changes is that now you can self-license yourself. If you believe you qualify for a category, you go under it by self-proclaiming it to yourself. That simple. You no longer need to submit application paperwork to OFAC for a license (awesome!).
- You should read thoroughly through the full definitions of the twelve categories in the laws and FAQ (section I provided above) to figure out which category applies the best to you.
- Whatever purpose you choose to go under, cannot support tourism.
- This means you cannot go under “journalism” and write an article promoting tourism. But you could write about Cuban coffee, the culture, politics, etc.
- It is believed that these amendments are intentionally vague to allow more leeway for people to figure out a way to go
- If you wish to engage in any travel that does not meet the requirements of a general self-license, that’s when you would need to apply for a specific license from OFAC (paperwork and application).
- But remember! The U.S. has the right to audit you within 5 years of your trip, so keep all your receipts and an itinerary.
III. These are the twelve (12) categories:
- Educational activities including People-to-People [Pick this one. It’s the easiest one – See next section below]
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Religious activities
- Humanitarian projects
- Journalistic activities
- Family visits to close relatives
- Support for the Cuban people (includes non-formal educational training) [Pick this one after Trump makes his changes]
- Exportation and re-exportation of certain internet-based services
- Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment, and construction supplies for private use
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
Again: if your travel falls within one of these categories you are authorized to self-license yourself to visit Cuba legally without having to submit any application paperwork to OFAC.
As Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in U.S.-Cuba related law told the New York Times:
Just remember! You must have a jam-packed itinerary before you leave. Quoted directly from the CACR, your itinerary must not…
“include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule”
IV. Choosing the Educational Category (People-to-People) to Travel to Cuba
Until Trump legally amends the regulations (still unchanged since October 2016), the easiest way to still go is through your own educational (“People-to-People”) tour created by you. I met people on these licensed tours who were on guided hike tours to waterfalls and beaches. These are arguably all tourist activities, but because they were with a Cuban the entire time and/or simultaneously involved in educational activities about Cuba and Cubans, they were still technically engaged in an educational cultural exchange that satisfied educational category license (#1).
But this doesn’t mean you can go to Cuba, talk to a Cuban and then head to the beach. Here is one example that does not qualify according to the CACR:
“An individual plans to travel to Cuba to participate in discussions with Cuban farmers and produce sellers about cooperative farming and agricultural practices and have extended dialogue with religious leaders about the influence of African traditions and religion on society and culture. The individual also plans to spend a few days engaging in brief exchanges with Cuban food vendors while spending time at the beach. Only some of these activities are educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba, and the traveler therefore does not have a full-time schedule of such activities on each day of the trip. The trip does not qualify for the general license.”
Directly from the Federal Register/CACR/Treasury website:
“Travelers utilizing this general license must ensure they maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba. The predominant portion of the activities must not be with a prohibited official of the Government of Cuba, or a prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party.”
The moral of the above stories (taken directly word-for-word from the U.S. regulations) is that your itinerary must consist of a FULL schedule of educational activities to satisfy this category license.
Related: My seven-day solo trip through Cuba
However, assuming you’re not strolling back into the country with a beach hat, visible bikini straps, and sand in your shoes, holding photos of you tanning on the beach, it is hard for a U.S. regulator to prove that you did or did not fully comply. They weren’t in Cuba with you watching your every move.
But regardless, have a packed itinerary ready to show immigration (just in case).
V. Creating a Legal Itinerary
Take a look at some of the OFAC/Government approved People-to-People group tour itineraries for good examples. Here are some of their government-approved itineraries:
I sell comprehensive templates of legal itineraries customized for your particular trip. Email me for more information.
VI. Flying to and from Cuba/United States
There are several legal ways to get there.
USA Commercial Flights: Since June 2016 , you can book your own flights online to a ton of Cuban cities on American Airlines, JetBlue, Silver Airways, and more… Legally and directly from the USA! No need to go through Canada or Mexico anymore. And the prices are VERY good.
Third Country: Depending on your preferences/departure city, it could be easier to take a flight to Mexico or Canada and then transfer to another flight to Cuba. This is also legal, but not necessary.
- Websites/companies I recommend to search for your flights out of a third country (there are many more):
Chartered Direct from various US cities: These guys are quickly going out of business since commercial flights became legal again. But just in case… this is another (very old school) way of flying from various U.S. cities to Cuba. I don’t recommend them since they’re pricier, but just in case:
- ABC Charters @ 866-4ABC-AIR
- Cuba Travel Services @ 310-772-2822
- Marazul @ 800-993-9667 or 305-559-7117
- Xael Charters @ 305-643-2200
VII. Visas/Travel Cards
The airline that is taking you to Cuba, will be the one to sell you a travel visa. This is very easy. This does NOT have to do with your category. Categories for travel are for the American authorities. A travel visa is for the Cuban authorities. They will call your travel tourism, regardless of what you’re telling the U.S. Remember that Cuba does not uphold the embargo, the U.S. does.
- Cubana Airlines – $20 (via Canada)
- Interjet – $25 (via Mexico)
- JetBlue – $50 (USA)
- Delta – $50 (USA)
- American Airlines – $85-100! (USA)
Some airlines will ask you to sign an affidavit promising that you are going for a purpose other than tourism (relaxation/fun). Then you’re off! That’s it. No application.
VIII. My Personal Experiences Leaving to Cuba
(a) From Cancun, Oct 2015
Mexico did not care that I was going to Cuba. They did not ask me any questions or make me fill out any paperwork pertaining to Cuba.
(b) From Toronto, Dec 2015
Just like Mexico, Canada did not care that I was going to Cuba.
(c) From NYC, Oct 2016
I got my visa for $85 ahead of time through Cuba Travel Services and flew American Airlines to Miami. At the Miami counter, there was a travel company by my gate that looked at all of my documents to make sure I had the travel card/visa. They stamped my boarding pass and that it was it. No questions asked.
(d) From NYC, Feb 2017
I paid $50 for my visa at the JetBlue counter. They have a special Cuba section at the JFK airport. Then I was off. It was so casual that they forgot to ask me to sign an affidavit. I saw the pile of affidavit forms on the counter, but I didn’t bother reminding them.
VII. Getting Through Cuban Immigration
Do not lose your tourist/travel card/visa. You will hand over one-half of it upon arrival, and the other half when you exit Cuba. Be sure to be mindful of Cuban laws too, not just U.S. laws.
- Cuba requires specific visas for journalism, studying, and doing business in Cuba
- Bringing items to either sell or give away in Cuba can be subject to customs regulations and/or taxes. But you can always bring items for your own personal use and decide later during your trip that you don’t want them anymore… 😉
- Careful with laptops if you bring more than one per traveler, they might think you’re trying to sell it.
I asked the immigration officers not to stamp my passport (for peace of mind), every time they kindly obliged.
October 2015 & December 2015
I wasn’t asked why I was visiting, where I was staying, who I was seeing, or what I was doing. Nothing. I can’t recall any real questions both times I went. I wasn’t asked anything about my medical insurance. It’s now covered under American airlines. I wasn’t given any security interrogation (unlike two other solo tourists I met). The only question I was asked was if I could stop smiling as they tried to take my picture.
When I got to the Camaguey airport, I was taken aside from the immigration booth for questioning. They asked me:
- What was my age? (four times)
- Why was I in Cuba?
- Who was I traveling with?
- Was with a tour group or alone?
- Was I doing people-to-people?
- Had I been to Cuba before?
- Some other random questions I can’t remember
I was nervous, but I answered confidently until diffusing situation the Latino-Caribbean way: with humor. By the end of the conversation, we were all laughing and I was back to the immigration queue. I got stamped and went off.
The same process from October and December 2015.
VII. Immigration: Getting back into the U.S.
This is the scariest part because it’s not Cuba who has a problem with people traveling there. It’s the U.S. and its still standing embargo against Cuba. Arriving in Mexico or Canada from Cuba was completely normal without any problems at all, these countries don’t really care. It’s not their anti-Cuban government laws or embargo.
(a) Havana to Cancun to Newark, Oct 2015
Because I have Global Entry ($100, waived if you have certain credit cards), at Newark Airport, I didn’t even have to speak to an immigration officer. I went to a Global Entry kiosk/computer that asked me, “Did you just come from Cancun? Do you have any of the following [ridiculous] items?” I answered honestly — Yes I just got back from Cancun. No, I’m not bringing back cows or explosives. I handed the receipt to an officer and just like that, without a word, I was strolling back into the country as if crossing a state border.
As far as the U.S. government knows, I didn’t even go to Cuba that time.
(b) Havana to Montreal to Newark, Jan 2016
My flight from Cuba to Montreal was delayed. So, I missed my Air Canada flight back to Newark from Montreal because my Air China flight out of Havana was delayed by several hours. Neither Air Canada (the flight I missed), United (the platform I used to purchase the ticket) nor Air China (the delayed connector) wanted to give me a new free flight. They said they had no obligation to do so, because I booked the trips separately. Thankfully, after lots of begging, United spared me a free flight to Newark …for the next day.
(c) Trouble at the U.S. Immigration Booth in Montreal
** This is important ** Montreal (YUL) and Toronto (YYZ) have international agreements with the U.S. These airports have U.S. immigration booths. That means you pass U.S. immigration in Canada, not the U.S.
My experience here was completely different here. In Canada’s U.S. immigration booth, I still had to speak to an immigration officer even though I went through a Global Access kiosk.
The immigration officer asked me why I’d been in Montreal for only a day and I honestly said: “Because I went to Cuba.” She responded, “Were you authorized for that travel?” and I affirmed. She asked if I brought anything back from Cuba, and again I answered honestly, “Yes, rum and chocolate.” She pursed her lips and let out a sigh. She hit the red “X” on her computer screen and told me to follow her. I sat in the immigration office waiting to be called. She whispered to an immigration officer, who looked underwhelmed by her concerns. He shrugged and whispered, “There are a lot of them coming and going to Cuba now..” before turning his back to me to continue whispering.
Finally, when I was called up, a young officer asked me why I went to Cuba. He seemed to not be fully aware of the regulatory changes, so I explained which license I went under. The officer then asked if I had applied for the license, to which I explained I didn’t have to as per the recent amendments, which I pulled up on my phone to show him along with my itinerary. He asked where I got the PDFs from, and I explained they are the OFAC amendments to the CACR on the U.S. Treasury website.
He then asked what I thought of Cuba. I answered with the most pro-capitalism, pro-America response I could muster up.He seemed satisfied and agreed that the new regulations are pretty vague. Before welcoming me back into the country, he kindly informed me that to bring back Cuban rum I have to bring it directly to the U.S. with no international layovers. But he seemed to not want any issues and said he’d make an exception and allow me to bring back the rum. Ecstatically, I thanked him and raced to my plane back to New York City.
Before officially welcoming me back into the country, he kindly informed me that to bring back Cuban rum I have to bring it directly to the U.S. with no international layovers. But he seemed to not want any issues and said he’d make an exception and allow me to bring back the rum. Ecstatically, I thanked him and raced to my plane back to New York City.
(d) Flying into Miami, U.S.A from Varadero, Cuba
I landed in Miami. Swiped my global access card and went to the counter to hand over my receipt. I noticed then and there: everyone at the airport was Cuban. The customs officers, the immigration officers, border patrol, the janitors, the security guards. The immigration officer said “where’d you just come from?” and I said “Cuba.” He began to ask “Wh—” but I cut him off in wonder “But I gotta say, it feels like I’m still in Cuba!” I pointed and began speaking in Spanish, “Everyone here is Cuba. You are Cuban, he is Cuban, everyone is Cuban“. I explained I was a Dominican New Yorker, we exchanged jokes and laughter, and I strolled back into the country with zero questioning.
“Los Dominicanos y los Cubanos comparten los mismo chistes” – Cuban man in Camaguey
My friends without global access said they had zero questioning in Miami and were simply told: “Welcome back home”.
(e) Flying into NYC, U.S.A from Havana, Cuba
I signed into the Global Access computer. I handed the immigration officer my receipt. He nodded. I kept it moving.
*Please note, you do not have to be a U.S. citizen to be subject to U.S. jurisdiction. Click the link to see if you qualify.
**This is not legal advice. Please keep in mind that these laws are continuously changing. I try my best to update them as soon as I hear anything. Click here for my recap of Trump’s announcements. Nothing has been changed though.
Got any questions? Anything I missed? Confusion? Post a comment question below! 🙂