an american couple explores the cities of Cuba

Can Americans Travel to Cuba?

For decades, Cuba has held a magnetic allure for travelers worldwide, with its vibrant culture, colorful history, and stunning landscapes. However, for Americans, visiting this Caribbean island has been a complex and evolving matter, largely due to the strained diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. So, can Americans travel to Cuba?

In recent years, the answer has shifted several times, reflecting the changing political climate. In 2014, the Obama administration took significant steps to thaw relations between the two countries, leading to the easing of some travel restrictions. Under these new regulations, Americans could visit Cuba under specific categories, such as educational, cultural, religious, or humanitarian activities, without needing prior approval from the U.S. government.

This shift sparked a surge in American travelers eager to explore Cuba's rich culture and history. However, just as quickly as these opportunities arose, they were somewhat curtailed. In 2017, the Trump administration reinstated certain travel restrictions, effectively rolling back some of the Obama-era policies. While travel to Cuba was not completely banned, it became more challenging for Americans to visit the island nation independently.

Can Americans Travel to Cuba?

Yes and no. Despite these restrictions, Americans can still travel to Cuba legally. However, they must navigate a somewhat convoluted process. Under current regulations, travelers must certify that their visit falls into one of the approved categories, obtain the necessary visas and permits, and retain detailed records of their activities while in Cuba. You will have to prove that your visit qualifies for one of the 12 U.S.-approved categories. Qualifying trips include:

  • official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  • 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

"People-to-people" contact is allowed through tour groups that promote experiences bringing Americans and Cubans together, such as visits to museums or other historic sites. Most tour companies have packed the schedules in full compliance with federal laws. You most likely will not have abundant free time to wander around. Authorized travelers into Cuba will need a U.S. passport and a visa required by the Cuban government, issued as a tourist card.

Can You Travel for Leisure?

General tourism is still not permitted at the present time. However, American tourists are able to sign up for "people-to-people" excursions with a government-authorized tour company that creates its own scheduled itineraries. Lounging on the beach sipping mojitos, unfortunately, is not an approved activity. Additionally, in June 2019, cruise ships and private yachts were banned from traveling to Cuba, further complicating travel options for Americans.

What are the Restrictions for Americans?

At present, you will need to travel to Cuba with a tour group that has obtained an official license from the U.S. State Department. Visiting historic sites is possible, such as the Bay of Pigs, but recreational tourism, such as beach-going is forbidden. You cannot bring your gear and snorkel or scuba dive on your own time, though it is possible that beach excursions could be part of these larger group itineraries.

The current administration has also released a list of restricted Cuban entities that Americans are forbidden from interacting with financially. The list includes ministries, holding companies, hotels, tourist agencies, marinas, and stores. Americans approved to visit Cuba are still prohibited from direct financial transactions with these companies and entities. U.S. government-approved tour companies schedule their itineraries in accordance with these guidelines, so travelers shouldn't worry.

Furthermore, Americans cannot use debit or credit cards in Cuba. U.S.-owned banks and financial services will not process transactions due to ongoing governmental sanctions. Travelers' cheques are accepted sparingly so cash is your best bet for purchases.  Once in Cuba, your dollars will need to be exchanged for pesos and will add to the expense of the visit.

How Tricky Is It to Book a Flight?

Many U.S.-based airlines now allow travelers to purchase tickets to Cuba. Upon check-in, however, travelers must present a specific license from the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) or certify with the airline that their travel falls under a general license category. Travelers must also have a valid visa issued by the Cuban government.

Are There Future Plans to Change the Rules?

Over the years, many bills have been introduced into the legislature by a bipartisan committee of senators that aims to lift all restrictions on travel to Cuba. If approved, it will allow Americans to travel to Cuba free of all restrictions. This final act of Congress will remove and repeal the current travel ban.

On the bright side, while your beach vacation to Cuba may have to wait, you will be able to see the authentic country before it is overrun by American visitors. Numerous cultural tours are all available to Americans who want to travel to Cuba right now.

Last Updated: March 14, 2024