Traveling to Cuba from the United States

Recent changes in U.S. Policies have Made Traveling to Cuba Much Easier

President Obama’s December 17th, 2014 announcement that America was reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba has many positive consequences for travel plans. The resumption of good relations with Cuba means easier travel, trade, and financial relations between the two countries as well as Cuba’s removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and a reopening U.S. embassy within Cuba. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) put President Obama’s declared changes into effect on January 16, 2015; this action effectively removed many legal obstacles and inconveniences that reduced Cuban travel and commerce. While not all changes have been fully implemented, the following amendments are in effect and currently making Cuban travel easier:

  • Travelers are no longer required to apply to OFAC for a "specific" travel license. (General license is still required - when traveling to Cuba with Cuba Unbound, we will obtain the general license for you!)
  • While in theory debit and credit cards from US financial institutions are supposed to be accepted in Cuba, the reality on the ground is different and it's best to not count on this convenience at this point.  Credit or debit cards from Canada and European banks are accepted.  However, finding places that accept these is still problematic.
  • Direct commercial flights to Cuba are now available to the public and can be booked online through prefered airlines, as well as on many travel websites.
  • Travelers can return with goods worth up to $400 in U.S. currency, including tobacco and alcohol.
  • Travelers can now purchase travel insurance that will be applied to time spent in Cuba

Recreational Travel is Still Prohibited

Restrains regarding visits for purely tourist and recreational purposes are still prohibited. Cuban travel remains more accessible than it has been since the embargo in 1961 because there are additional travel categories that do not require OFAC authorization, but visits must have a purpose beyond beachfront relaxation. Under the new regulations, “Recreational travel, tourist travel, travel in pursuit of a hobby, or research for personal satisfaction only” remain illegal. Therefore, trips to Cuba are required to be non-commercial as well as purposeful; that being said, since specific licenses are no longer required, this requirement can be met without as much paperwork as before.

Specific and General Licenses For Legal Travel

Travel licenses can be confusing, and so we will break it down for you:

  1. SPECIFIC LICENSES: Before the regulations were amended, obtaining a specific license was the only way to operate legal people-to-people tours to Cuba. Specific licenses had been obtained from the OFAC to companies and individuals. With the recent regulations, specific licenses are becoming increasingly obsolete and so the basic rule should be that if you have not already acquired one, you do not need to acquire one.
  2. GENERAL LICENSES: This is the type of license you now need to travel to Cuba legally. While this license appears rather indefinite and travelers no longer need to obtain letters of permission and instead the general license certifies your travel under one of the authorized categories. See below on how to travel to Cuba on a general license independently.  

U.S. airlines as well as insurance companies require general licenses for their services, and using them will permit you to legally transport goods like tobacco, rum, and the infamous Che Guevara shirt back into the U.S.

When traveling with Cuba Unbound to Cuba, we supply travelers with general licenses as part of our informative people-to-people tours so that the entire process remains easy, enjoyable, and best of all: legal.

If you would prefer to travel to Cuba independently and are interested in procuring a general license on your own, here is how to do it:

How to Acquire a General License on Your Own When NOT Traveling with Cuba Unbound to Cuba.

Step 1:

Listed below are most of the general license categories considered for Cuban travel listed in order of most to least common. If you would like to peruse full category descriptions, please visit the OFAC website.

  1. Professional research, to attend professional meetings relating directly to said traveler’s career, professional background, or professional field. For instance, making a documentary film would be considered professional research. (§515.564)
  2. Educational activities, including People-to-People travel, for secondary school, university, and college students, chaperones, faculty, and staff. Graduate and undergraduate degree academic research relating specifically to Cuba. Also, faculty and staff may visit Cuba autonomously in order to prepare and research for later student trips. To Clarify: This category requires a formal course of study, and so Spanish lessons would not apply to this category (§515.565)
  3. Religious organizations as well as their staff and members to engage in scheduled religious activities (§515.566)
  4. Human rights organizations, NGOs, independent organizations, and individuals who support the Cuban populace (§515.574)
  5. Visiting a family member or relative who resides in Cuba as well as a relative of someone you reside with as family (§515.561)
  6. Humanitarian projects including environmental projects, medical and health-related projects, construction projects, formal and non-formal educational training, and so on (§515.575)
  7. Involvement in workshops, public performances, clinics, exhibitions, athletic performances, and other competitions (§515.567)
  8. Business trips for importation or exportation of telecommunications, internet hardware and services, and exportation of agricultural products (§515.545)
  9. Activities regarding private foundations, research, or educational institutions (§515.576)
  10. Governmental employee or government organization official business (§515.562)

So, what is a People to People tour in Cuba?  Find out more, here.

Step 2:

Create General License

You can create your license by either going online and completing a generic affidavit or writing a letter containing the following information:

  • Travel dates
  • High level travel purpose
  • Specific category for general license (code citation applies here)
  • Signature and date

You do not need to notarize these forms. It would be best to provide paper evidence even though the regulations do not currently have documentation requirements; while there is no paper “license,” it is best to provide some evidence to the customs official. The letter or affidavit will be sufficient.

It is important to note that each individual (even children) involved in the party requires a general license. To clarify, a spouse of a university professor traveling for professional reasons would not qualify for a general license.

Step 3:

Documenting Travel and Travel Transactions

OFAC regulations require that travelers maintain clear records of travels throughout Cuba even with a license. Also, travelers are required to retain possession of these documents for up to 5 years in the unlikely event that the OFAC solicits them. Therefore, keep documents regarding purchases or transactions relating to your Cuba travels such as flight and accommodation records as well as itineraries and evidence for travel purposes.

Step 4:

Returning to the U.S.

You will only be required to present your license to officials upon returning to the U.S. from your trip to Cuba. As other countries do not enforce America’s travel embargo regulations, citizens of other countries will not have expectations regarding your license.

Upon returning home, you will fill out an immigration and customs form. On the form, write “Cuba (under general license §xxx.xxx)” under the “Countries Visited” portion. Usually officials do not scrutinize these forms, and you can freely acknowledge your Cuba travels if asked. You will only be required to show your license to an official if asked, and such a request is rare unless you are transporting tobacco back home.

Please, check out the OFAC website for further information.

Flight Options to Cuba from the USA

US Citizens:  Commercial flights from the United States to Cuba have begun and are effectively replacing group charter flights as the standard mode of travel between the two countries.  We now ask that our guests book their own travel between the U.S. and Havana. From Miami there are daily departures to and from Havana, but other direct flight options include departures from New York-JFK, Newark, Atlanta, Houston, and LAX (beginning January 2017). While there are several airports in Cuba (including Holguin for our Kayaking-East guests), the vast majority of our guests will fly into Havana to begin their tours.  

When should I go? (Weather)

Simply put, we suggest visiting Cuba when it's a bit cooler and less touristy.  This would be between November through April.  This said, it's never a terrible time to visit Cuba!  Even during hurricane season, you can check the weather reports and find great deals.  To get more detail on weather, month to month, in Cuba - go here: Cuba weather.

Travel Insurance

While the minimum amount of required health insurance is included in your airfare to Cuba, we suggest buying additional travel insurance.  The Cuban government reserves the right to ask for proof of insurance upon entering their country. When you travel with Cuba Unbound, we can help in purchasing additional travel insurance for your Cuba trip.

Other Questions

Please visit our Cuba Frequently Asked Questions page for other answers to questions like: Is it safe to travel to Cuba? Do I need a Visa? How many cigars can I bring home? ...and much more!