Is it still legal to visit Cuba?
Is it Legal to Travel to Cuba?
"Can I still travel to Cuba legally?" is still one of the most frequent questions that I get on Facebook, Instagram, and via my website. Travel restrictions for U.S. citizens seem to be constantly changing yet the information put out by our government is consistently confusing. I lead group trips to Cuba, so YES, it's still legal to travel to Cuba but it's much harder (and more expensive!) than it used to be. Here's the low-down on legal travel to Cuba:
On June 16, 2017, President Donald Trump announced a directive to roll back Obama's progressive tourism and trade initiatives with Cuba. Technically, the long-standing "tourism" ban to Cuba was never lifted under Obama, it just was never enforced. Trump's administration, however, has a VERY unfriendly stance toward Cuba and has threatened to enforce the ban on what they consider "tourism". Trump also banned U.S. companies from doing business with and U.S. citizens from engaging with Cuba's military-linked entities, which control much of the island's tourism industry from hotels to buses. What does this mean? It means it's illegal for an American to stay in a hotel in Cuba that is partially owned by the Cuban military. EVERY SINGLE hotel in Cuba is at least partially owned by the Cuban government and many are also partially owned by the Cuban military but you would never know just by looking at the hotel. Will customs interrogate you about where you stayed in Cuba upon return to the US? Probably not. Will the US government follow up? It's too soon to tell.
According to the Treasury Department, which licenses Cuba travel, the new rules stipulate that a "traveler's schedule of activities must not include free time or recreation in excess." Trump eliminated travelers' ability to select the "people-to-people" classification on their travel form, which was the category chosen by most Americans who planned their own trips to Cuba under Obama in 2016 and 2017.
12 types of legal travel to Cuba were created under Obama to allow American travel that weren't officially "tourism." Those categories still remain, but many do not apply to the average traveler, such as visiting family in Cuba, attending a professional research meeting, or performing at a a sports event or artistic exhibition. You can still travel to Cuba as part of a group trip with an officially licensed tour operator. Again, independent travelers are barred from traveling under a privately or self-organized educational or cultural trip but can still travel to Cuba as part of a group trip with an officially licensed tour operator.
Solo Travel to Cuba
"Can I travel to Cuba alone?" is another question I get a lot. Technically, solo travel to Cuba is still an option under the "Support for the Cuban People" category but the US government uses extremely vague language and does not describe specifically what is included and prohibited under this category. As an enthusiastic solo traveler who has traveled to Cuba alone at least half a dozen times, I will tell you that it can be done but given how unfriendly the Trump administration is toward Cuba and it's threats to prosecute, it' too soon to know if people will actually be prosecuted (which could include a hefty fine and/or jail time). I've worked with several solo travelers to help them plan their own adventure to Cuba to ensure their trip is fun, safe, and legal! Contact me if you would like help planning your own solo trip to Cuba.
Travelers interested in solo travel to Cuba should also consider other potential challenges, such as limited wifi, a mostly non-English speaking population, and Cuba's two currencies, which often confuse tourists and, unfortunately, sometimes result in their being swindled. Travelers who speak Spanish will have a strong advantage but those who don't speak Spanish may have difficulty getting around and communicating in general since most Cubans do not speak English and little to no signage is offered in English. Non-Spanish-speaking solo travelers to Cuba can absolutely still have a great trip, they likely will just end up paying more and seeing less since they'll likely be at the mercy of the new English-speaking "friends" they meet, who inflate prices and get a commission on every single house, car, meal, and activity they help you coordinate.
It's unsure how long it will take for the new policies to take effect but your safest bet is to book through a tour company, meaning you will be traveling under a specific, government-approved itinerary. No more booking your own flight and AirBnB and spending the days at the beach and nights as you please. While some people do this, “vacations” to Cuba aren’t technically legal so it’s possible solo travelers will have issues with the US government should they not properly adhere to the US government’s vague guidelines.
Americans are prohibited from staying in Cuban hotels, renting cars or taking buses that are owned by the Cuban military. Approved group people-to-people travel through tour operators that stay in pre-approved accommodations and engage in only pre-approved activities remains legal. Tour operators will be audited by the U.S. government to ensure that their itineraries are in adherence with the new policy – but it's not yet clear how aggressively travel will be monitored or the audits enforced. Americans can still travel to Cuba on their own, you’d just be responsible to research all the current rules (and frequent changes), plan your trip accordingly, and keep supporting documentation for 5 years in case the US government requests it. Trump's rules will make travel to Cuba much more expensive and prescriptive but it won't change your ability to engage with locals, enjoy a beautiful country and lively culture, and have a wonderful trip.
Considering bypassing these rules and traveling to Cuba via Mexico or Canada? Think again. If you try to hide your trip to Cuba upon returning to the U.S., you will be violating federal laws and can face serious punishment.
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See my previous blog posts to get a feel for the day-to-day life that few tourists encounter, what to pack, what to expect, and what to know.