25 Things to Know About WiFi Access in Cuba (Aug 2019)
WiFi Access in Cuba in 2019
“Is there WiFi in Cuba?” is one of the most frequent questions I receive. Short answer: Yes, there is WiFi access in Cuba. Long answer: The Internet has existed in Cuba for well over a decade, just not in the form that most travelers are used to.
Your ability to connect to the WiFi in Cuba depends on a lot of factors and even if you can connect to the internet, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to access all your favorite websites and apps.
Since I lead group trips to Cuba and help people plan their own travels to Cuba, I spend a lot of time in the country and have used the internet (including my laptop and several smartphones) in every single province and have encountered every single Internet-related challenge imaginable.
Read on to learn what to expect when connecting (or attempting to connect) to WiFi in Cuba.
1. Internet access in Cuba is rapidly improving
As of June, 2019, there are 956 WiFi hotspots across the country. Every year, new hot spots pop up, Internet speed improves, and the cost of connecting decreases. In 2017, Google servers went live in Cuba, making them the first foreign internet company to host content in Cuba. I still hear some travelers complain that they can’t jump on WiFi in every single cafe like in other countries, but know that Internet access has dramatically improved in recent years, we’ve all just been spoiled in other countries.
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2. Connecting to WiFi in Cuba requires an Internet card
Unlike most countries, it’s not as simple as just connecting to an open network and entering the password. First, you need to buy a NAUTA scratch-off Internet card and then you can connect to the ETECSA WiFi network. ETECSA is Cuba’s telecommunications company.
Once you turn on WiFi, you’ll select the “ETECSA” network (there won’t be many to chose from) and a screen should pop up asking you to log in. This is where you’ll enter the usario (username) and contraseña (password) found on the back of the scratch-off Internet card. If your browser doesn’t pop up with the log-in screen, open the browser and type: “184.108.40.206”. If that doesn’t work, see #13 below.
3. There are four places to buy NAUTA Internet cards:
This is the official way to buy a Nauta Internet card. You’ll need to show your passport and you’re limited to purchasing 3 NAUTA cards at a time. Expect to wait in a long line. Internet cards cost CUC$1 (about USD$1.20) for every hour of internet. 1-hour and 5-hour cards are the most common and they’re valid for 30 days. Most ETECSA offices are open from 8:30am-7pm but may run out of WiFi cards far sooner.
All major hotels sell NAUTA cards that can connect to any ETECSA public WiFi hotspot (though the hotel may charge extra for the cards). You don’t necessarily have to be a guest at the hotel to buy an Internet card there. A handful of hotels, such as the Habana Libre, sell proprietary cards (about CUC$5/hour) that connect to the hotel’s own private WiFi.
At the park/square
There’s almost always someone walking around the park/square asking “WiFi? Internet”. These people are re-selling NAUTA cards at a premium, usually an extra 50 cents to $2. These cards are safe and will save you from waiting in long lines, just be sure to check that the password hasn’t been scratched off yet.
Businesses near the square
In some cities, like Baracoa, restaurants and shops surrounding the WiFi hotspot will sell NAUTA cards on the side. Some casa particular hosts also sell them. Ask around if the ETECSA office is closed.
4. Most Internet hotspots in Cuba are outside
The vast majority of Cubans and tourists connect to the internet at outdoor public WiFi hotspots. These are usually in popular public parks (parques), plazas, and busy promenades. Though hotel WiFi used to only be accessible from within the hotel, it’s now strong enough to catch from outside many large hotels.
It’s totally safe to connect to the Internet outside, just know it’s not a private connection so be careful when entering credit card info. Keep in mind that you may be standing in the hot sun (or in pouring rain, as I’ve had to do in order to make urgent trip arrangements for clients).
5. Know where to look for “wee-fee”
How can you find the nearest WiFi hotspot in Cuba? Some apps and websites (such as the ETECSA website) indicate where hotspots are but if you can’t access WiFi to begin with, how are you going to get to the online map? Ask your host (or any stranger on the street) where to find WiFi (pronounced “wee-fee” in Spanish) or stop wherever you see a large number of Cubans staring at their phones.
In Havana, most WiFi spots are in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and Vedado. In other cities, such as Viñales , Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santiago, Holguin, Matanzas, Guantanamo, Varadero, and Baracoa, hotspots are usually scattered in a few central parks and plazas.
6. Yes, Facebook works in Cuba
Have no fear, you’ll be able to feed your social media addiction from within Cuba. Cubans love social media just as much as everyone else and you shouldn’t have any problems accessing Facebook, Instagram, or other social media platforms, they’ll just be slower.
7. Internet access in Cuba is fast…enough
The signal strength has improved dramatically, as video calls were impossible just a couple years ago, but don’t expect the same speed you get in the United States or Canada. Video calls are now possible but the signal can sometimes be too weak even for regular internet browsing. I prefer WhatsApp and iChat for communications in Cuba but you can also use Skype, IMO, GoogleTalk, and Facebook Messenger.
Live streaming is typically not possible, though I was able to do a couple Instagram lives in Baracoa (Guantanamo) and in Havana recently.
8. Some phone apps don’t work properly in Cuba
Some apps just don’t work properly in Cuba, including AirBnB, as detailed in my article What to Know Before Booking an AirBnB in Cuba. During a two-month trip to Cuba in 2018, I decided to check out some AirBnBs around the country. I wasn’t able to make new bookings on the app so I emailed AirBnB for support. I was told by an ill-informed employee that I probably had an old version of the app so I should delete it and re-download it.
This was a big mistake, as many apps aren’t able to be downloaded in Cuba (see bullet #23), so I lost all access to the app for the next two months. It took a week for me to figure out that I could make reservations through an Internet browser but even then, the map and address functions weren’t accurate.
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9. Some websites don’t work at all in Cuba
Due to the United States’ trade embargo against Cuba, some websites and apps won’t work at all in Cuba. This is particularly true of finance and payment companies such as PayPal, Venmo, and individual banks or financial institutions. What does this mean? It means that you can’t send/receive money through apps like Venmo and PayPal, you can’t log into your bank account to check balances or transfer money, and you can’t contact your bank or request for help through their website. Other sites that won’t work include: YouTube, Netflix, Pandora, and Amazon, but you likely won’t need any of these during a short trip.
Here’s a quick personal story: In 2018, a client in the United States paid me for travel planning through Venmo. For some reason, Venmo required that I manually “accept” the payment instead of it just being deposited automatically in my account. Since neither the Venmo app nor the website would work in Cuba (I tried via the app, the web browser on my phone, and from a desktop computer in a hotel), I couldn’t accept the payment so hundreds of dollars reversed back to the client. He was honest so he re-sent the payment when I returned to the US the following month but not all situations would end so well.
10. American e-mail accounts may not work properly in Cuba
Even if you can connect to WiFi, you may not be able to access your email account. While leading a group trip to Cuba in spring of 2019, I discovered this the hard way. I am normally able to log into my personal and business email accounts (which both run through Gmail) on my smartphone. But since I have an iPhone (see bullet #12), my phone wouldn’t connect to the internet for days at a time so I tried logging on to email from a hotel computer.
Though this strategy has worked for me in the past, in this instance, Gmail thought my desktop login was suspicious so they locked down my personal account. The only way to unlock it was to have a text message sent to my phone. I keep on airplane mode in Cuba to avoid ridiculous international carrier fees, which are higher in Cuba than most countries (see bullet #21).
11. G-Suite and linked Google accounts won’t work in Cuba
G-suite functions won’t work in Cuba. G Suite is blocked entirely in Cuba, as it is in Iran, North Korea, Crimea, Sudan, and Syria. Because my business email account is linked through my personal Gmail account (meaning it runs through G Suite), I was not able to access any documents on Google drive (spreadsheets, folders, photos, etc.)
Though I can normally respond to business emails directly in my Gmail phone app, when my phone wouldn’t connect to WiFi, I had to resort to a hotel computer. G-Suite won’t run at all on desktop computers in Cuba so I wasn’t even able to log into my business account to check emails until I returned to the US.
12. iPhones have the most problems connecting to Cuban WiFi
I have no idea why but iPhones seem to have more difficulty connecting to the Internet in Cuba than do other models of phones. I used a Samsung Galaxy during my first few trips to Cuba and noticed an immediate and dramatic change when I switched to iPhone a couple years ago. I’ve also seen my group tour participants with iPhones struggle to connect more to the internet than those with other phones.
13. There are several hacks if you can’t log on to WiFi
As mentioned above, if your browser doesn’t pop up with the log-in screen, open the browser and type: “220.127.116.11”.
If you’re still having difficulty connecting to the Internet, you can sometimes fix the problem by disconnecting from the network, clicking “forget this network”, turning off the WiFi, then turning it back on and reconnecting again. If this doesn’t work, turn off your phone and go through the steps again. It doesn’t always work, especially with iPhones, but it definitely helps.
14. Bad weather = slower Internet
Rain and wind make for a slower signal strength. If you know it’s going to storm, try to connect before the rain hits.
PRO TIP: Since the WiFi signal may cut out before you can type out or voice record your entire message, type/speak out your message in advance (on WhatsApp or iChat) and they’ll automatically send as soon as you connect to WiFi.
15. Big crowds = slower Internet
The strength of WiFi in Cuba also depends on when you access it. Remember, you’re sharing the signal with everyone around you so you’ll get a better signal early in the morning when there are fewer people connecting. Less popular hotspots, where fewer people are gathered, also tend to offer a better signal (but not always).
16. Mobile data plans exist for Cubans
In fall of 2018, the Cuban government did ai test run of nationwide Internet access in Cuba. It was brief and users complained the service was slow but they were excited none-the-less. Since December, 2018, Cubans have been able to purchase phone-based data plans. Up until then, they were only able to connect to the Internet by buying scratch-off WiFi cards and connecting at hotspots. Now, Cubans have the option to purchase a data plan for their phone, but is still slow, unreliable, and expensive.
While it’s an improvement, most Cubans still find the monthly plans cost prohibitive. For instance, a 4G package costs CUC$30, which is more than the average monthly salary for most Cubans. The Cubans who are most likely to be able to afford these packages are those who work in tourism (guides, casa owners, restaurant servers, jinetero hustlers) and have access to tourist dollars.
17. Buying a SIM card in Cuba is complicated
Unlike some countries, you can’t buy a local phone from an airport vending machine or get a SIM card from an electronics store in Cuba. Buying a SIM card in Cuba is possible but it’s complicated and time-consuming. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re spending at least 3-4 weeks in Cuba and absolutely need frequent internet access. If you’d like to go this route, take an unlocked phone (and your passport!) to an ETECSA office. Note that the entire transaction will be in Spanish.
SIM activation costs CUC$40, which includes CUC$10 worth of calls, texts, and data. Note that it can take up to 36 hours to activate the card.
Some entrepreneurial casas rent SIM cards and mobile phones with an active Cuban number (which may also include a data plan) for an additional cost. I’ve seen casas charge CUC$5-20/day for a phone.
Even though I spend months at a time in Cuba on a regular basis, I still preferred to use scratch-off Internet cards for WiFi access. I’ve tried the new Cuban data plan and it’s still pretty unreliable and I really enjoy being disconnected from the Internet in Cuba.
18. Don’t forget to turn off your WiFi connection
Closing your Instagram account or logging out of email doesn’t mean that you’ve disconnected from the Internet. If you forget to disconnect, the Internet will continue connecting and time will be deducted from your card. You can either click the “cerrar sesión” (“close session”) button under the Nauta timer (pictured), or you can simply turn off your WiFi connection.
19. Some casas particulares have WiFi
More and more casas particulares are getting WiFi that their guests can connect to in the house. This is definitely much more convenient than having to walk to a WiFi hot spot but know that the host is likely pulling the signal from the hotspot at the public park/plaza (several blocks away) so connection may be worse in the house.
Home-based WiFi is not the norm so don’t be disappointed if your casa doesn’t have Internet. Even if a host can afford it, it’s a hassle to get installed. Several casas I work with for my Cuba group tours have had WiFi in their home for a couple yars while others have been waiting 4 months for Internet to be installed.
Even if you connect from the casa, you still need to have a NAUTA Internet card. The only difference is that you’ll connect to whatever the home’s network is (which may have its own passcode) and not to the “ETECSA” network, as you would in the park.
PRO TIP: When you connect via a home account, three people can connect at the same time even though time is only deducted from the one card that logged in.
20. Many hotels offer free WiFi
Many hotels in Cuba offer 30 minutes to one hour worth of free WiFi access in the hotel common areas. If you’d like to use more time, just purchase a WiFi card at reception. Some resorts are even testing out providing guests 12 hours of WiFi during their stay and the tourism minister has pledged to offer better WiFi access at four and five star hotels in 2019. While this is great for hotel guests, it doesn’t help travelers staying in casas particulares and it definitely doesn’t help the average Cuban gain more access to the Internet.
21. Tourists may be able to use their own phone plan in Cuba
Canadians, rejoice! Several of your phone companies provide access in Cuba, where you’ll connect to the local carrier, Cubacel. You’ll pay around $12/day with Koodo, Telus, and Bell, but you’ll still be at the mercy of Cubacel, so fast connection is not guaranteed.
No American mobile phone companies include Cuba in their international phone or data plans. This doesn’t mean your phone won’t work in Cuba, you’ll just have to pay extra. Rates vary widely (typically around $2-3/minute and $0.25-0.50/text) and policies are always changing so check with your individual carrier before you travel.
During my Cuba group tours, I’ve had many participants make a quick call to the US or send a couple text messages via Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T or other companies. They typically paid a few dollars for this service. In February, 2019, one of my clients (intentionally) left his phone and data on during our 11-day trip and he enjoyed pretty good 3G service in Havana, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos, where he was able to video chat with his daughter through WhatsApp. The signal was slower in rural places like Viñales and the Bay of Pigs. He uses AT&T and I’m waiting to hear from his accountant how many hundreds of dollars the calls cost him.
22. Some hotels will let you use their desktop computers
Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, some hotels will let you use the desktop computers in their business center. I’ve found this extremely helpful in both Viñales and Trinidad, when my iPhone refused to connect to the internet.
23. Download helpful phone apps BEFORE getting to Cuba
Remember that some apps can be used in Cuba but can’t be downloaded from within the country. Here’s a list of helpful phone apps to download before your trip:
WhatsApp - Great for text, voice messages, voice calls, and video calls.
Maps.Me - Invaluable map resource that can be used offline to navigate and find streets, hotels, restaurants, and more.
IMO - Similar to WhatsApp or Facebook messenger. It’s extremely popular in Cuba but you may only use it if you plan to chat with Cubans.
AlaMesa - Restaurant finder in Cuba. Though tourists may complain the reviews aren’t accurate and it’s not as good as Yelp, Cubans love the app.
Zapya - A file sharing app that EVERY Cuban uses to pass music, videos, and photos from phone to phone (both iOS and Android).
24. Sometimes the Internet doesn’t work in Cuba
Sometimes none of the tips above will work and you won’t be able to connect to the internet no matter what you do. Given how difficult it is to enjoy an Internet-free holiday these days, I strongly encourage you to spend at least a few days without Internet. I’ve gone up to 30 days without Internet in Cuba and about half of my tour participants go 7-11 days without Internet. Every single one of them were thoroughly pleased they decided to do so.
25. Save important documents as screen shots
If you have difficulty connecting to the Internet in Cuba, you don’t want important information to be hidden in an email attachment or online account that you’re not able to access offline. Download important documents to your phone to be accessed offline, take screen shots so you can access the info in your photos, and/or copy paste information (such as hotel and flight information) into your calendar to have it accessible.
Related Articles about Cuba
See my previous blog posts to help you plan your upcoming trip to Cuba and to get a feel for the day-to-day life that few tourists encounter.