Cuba conjures such fascination for Americans. Only 100 miles separates Key West, Florida from Havana, Cuba, yet how could the American and Cuban people remain so isolated from one another for such an extensive period of time? How could a country so close to our shores exist as if time had stopped 60 years ago?
Over the past decades, the relationship between the U.S. and Cuban governments has been frigid at best. An embargo prevented Americans from having any connection with Cuba.
The embargo included travel, which made it illegal for any American who wasn’t approved for a travel license from the U.S. government to travel to Cuba. In early 2015, President Obama’s administration announced its intentions to restore relations between the U.S. and Cuba. A flurry of excitement followed.
Now, in a little more than a week, I’ll be heading to Cuba (with hubby in tow)!! Yet, when I tell people about the trip, I’m almost always met with a hesitation and an inquisitive glance.
Similarly, at the 2016 New York Times Travel Show, travel experts Arthur and Pauline Frommer did a seminar about up and coming destinations in 2016. They encouraged Americans to travel to Cuba and were met with a barrage of questions and misunderstandings about the quickly changing rules governing Americans traveling to Cuba.
People want to know…
Can Americans travel to Cuba?
The news is reporting that domestic airlines could be flying routes between the U.S. and Cuba as early as this summer. Hotel brand, Starwood, announced they’ll be taking over hotels in Havana. President Obama became the first U.S. President to visit Cuba in over 80 years. Americans’ wanderlust for Cuba is beginning to boil. U.S. citizens want to understand the current rules about traveling to Cuba.
So, can Americans travel to Cuba?
The short answer is “Yes, but...”
Let’s be clear from the start. Americans CAN’T freely travel to Cuba as a tourist. This means, as an American, you cannot go and relax on Cuba’s beaches for a week. That’s still illegal.
BUT, plenty of Americans are traveling to Cuba for a variety of reasons other than tourism.
So…Yes, Americans CAN travel to Cuba, but it must be for a pre-approved reason.
Let’s see how Americans travel to Cuba and what has changed to make it much easier.
1. Government Approval
Before 2015, Americans who wanted to go to Cuba needed to apply to the Department of Treasury and qualify for a travel license within 1 of 12 categories, or reasons for visiting. Approval for the travel license was a strict and long process.
The 12 travel categories for Cuba are:
Humanitarian projects or to provide support to the Cuban people
Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
Educational activities by persons at academic institutions
Public performance, clinics, workshops, athletics, or other competitions and exhibitions
Authorization to provide travel services, carrier services, and remittance forwarding services
Activities of private foundations, research, or educational institutes
Exportation of certain internet-based services
Americans who want to travel to Cuba must still fit within 1 of these 12 categories. BUT, they no longer need to apply and be approved for the license from the Department of Treasury. Americans can self-approve their reason for traveling to Cuba as long as it fits into 1 of the 12 broad categories.
In other words, Americans can travel to Cuba without needing any special permission or approval from the U.S. government if their reason for travel falls within the scope of any of the 12 categories.
2. People-to-People Trips
People-to-People trips to Cuba were started to connect Americans and Cubans in a cultural exchange. The trips’ intent are to go beyond basic tourism and allow American visitors to meet and talk with Cuban artists, musicians, scientists, conservationists, and community volunteers. This interaction is to learn more about Cuba, its people, culture, and history while they, in turn, learn from the visiting Americans.
These trips have been organized and run by tour operators who were approved by the Office of Foreign Assets Control in strict accordance with the laws regarding the U.S.-Cuban relationship. People participating in these tours keep a tight, guided schedule of cultural activities.
A major criticism of these trips, though, is the price. A 10-day people-to-people trip to Cuba costs over $4000! As of March 2016, the only direct flights from the U.S. to Cuba are chartered flights specifically for these trips. The cost for the flight, several hundred dollars at the least, is in addition to the trip price!
Critics also point to the contrived and inauthentic people-to-people connection, rather than interacting with each other spontaneously and naturally.
On March 15th, 2016, it got easier and cheaper for Americans to travel to Cuba. Americans will no longer need to join a People-to-People Trip, but rather can plan their own people-to-people itinerary. According to the New York Times reporting on the further eased travel restrictions,
“Under Tuesday’s revisions, Americans who plan a trip with a full schedule of educational exchange activities, including interacting with Cuban people, will for the first time in decades be able to travel on their own to Cuba without special permission from the United States government.”
While Americans cannot go to Cuba to lounge on the beach and work on their tans, planning a trip to Cuba to visit museums, historic sights, and to culturally engage with the Cuban people can now be self-organized and self-guided. This makes Cuba accessible for a lot less money to any American who wants to visit for cultural and educational reasons.
Can Americans really plan a trip to Cuba?
Yes, as long as you can honestly approve yourself within 1 of the 12 categories or plan an independent people-to-people trip. Read more about the 12 categories here in this document issued and updated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
You should plan and keep to the specific itinerary you organized based on your reason for visiting. Keep a journal or log of how you spend your time in Cuba and keep all receipts. You should plan to save your journal and receipts for 5 years.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be publishing information about how I planned my trip to Cuba and how you can, too! I’ll also be sharing my photos and experiences on social media so I hope you’ll be following along and sharing as well!!
Do you want to travel to Cuba? Are you planning a trip to Cuba? Share below in the comments!
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Disclosure: This post is not legal advice. I am merely explaining my understanding of the new rules based on my own research. Each traveler to Cuba should check with the U.S. Government to make sure they’re in accordance with the most up-to-date rules regarding travel to Cuba.