You’re certainly not alone. Since an ease in relations back in December of 2014, collective American curiosity has peaked around the idea of traveling to the island full of vintage cars, fresh, condensation-laced mojitos, and aromatic cigars. There’s plenty to see and do in Cuba beyond the postmark staples of cigars, cars, and rum, but that’s another post entirely.
There is a lot of information (and misinformation) swirling around regarding travel to the island, but do not despair! It’s easier to sort through than you may think. There are a few things you should know, and sort out, before packing your bags, or maletas, as the Cubans say. Here’s the long and short of it:
Can I travel to Cuba via another country, like Mexico or Canada?
Short Answer: Yes! Absolutely.
Long Answer: There is a common misconception that if a US citizen is to travel to Cuba from Mexico or Canada, they can bypass the regulations of the embargo. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While travel to Cuba from a third country is permitted, US travelers are still subject to the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) requirements and restrictions. Take it from the Treasury Department:
“Persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction traveling to and from Cuba via a third country may only do so if their travel-related transactions are authorized by a general or specific license issued by OFAC, and such travelers are subject to the same restrictions and requirements as persons traveling directly from the United States.”
So, yes, a US citizen may travel from a third country over to Cuba, however the travel plans to the Cuba portion of the trip must fall under 1 of 12 general licenses listed by OFAC. Which brings us to the next step, figuring out your travel license.
Do I need a license to travel to Cuba?
Short Answer: Yes.
Long Answer: There are 12 different general travel licenses available through OFAC in order for a US citizen to travel to Cuba. If your trip happens to fall under any one of these categories, you’re good to go! No need for a specific license.
The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are:
- Family visits
- Educational activities (including people to people group tours)
- Support for the Cuban people
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Religious activities
- Humanitarian projects
- Journalistic activity
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain authorized export transactions
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
Common licenses are family visits for Cuban Americans visiting relatives on the island, educational activities such as people to people tours with U.S. travel companies, public performances, support for the Cuban people and religious activities.
Wait, but what is a specific license, and how do I know if I need one?
Short Answer: Probably not.
Long Answer: If you have examined the above list of general licenses and don’t think your trip fits into any of the categories, then you are required to fill out a specific license application. These applications are considered on a case-by-case basis.
“If you determine that a general license does not apply, you may apply for a specific license by using this online application process. OFAC will consider the issuance of specific licenses on a case-by-case basis when a general license provision is not available. Please read all instructions and relevant information fully before submitting an application for a specific license.”
Most travel by US citizens will fall under the umbrella of the 12 general licenses, but be sure to give yourself plenty of time to double check, and apply for a specific license if need be.
What about paperwork? Do I need a visa to travel to Cuba?
Short Answer: Yes.
Long Answer: Acquiring a Cuban visa can be arranged through your airline. Here’s a breakdown of the visa costs by airline, and when/where to buy them:
- JetBlue – Purchase at gate – $50
- Southwest – Purchase online beforehand, delivered to gate – $50
- Delta – Purchase at gate – $50
- United – Purchase at gate – $75
- American Airlines – Purchase at gate (Charlotte & Miami) or online – $85
If you’re traveling on a Cruise or People to People program, the visa may already be included (be sure to check.) Or, you can also get your Visa online before your trip. Here’s the sites of authorized travel agencies selling them and their prices:
- Cuba Travel Services – $85 + $25 shipping
- OnCuba Travel – $65 + $10 shipping (or free local pick up in Miami)
Getting all of your travel-to-Cuba ducks in a row may seem daunting, but the process is streamlined and straightforward. As long as you prep your itinerary and paperwork, traveling to Cuba is well worth the extra work.