Viva Cuba! Part 2 – The Basics: Visa Requirements

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Emily:  When I learned about America’s more relaxed policy towards travel to Cuba, I jumped at the opportunity!

Cuba has a lot to offer.  My friends and I were drawn to the classic cars, the Art Deco architecture, and, of course, the friendly people!  We also love music and dance, which is one of Cuba’s specialties! Rick Steves recently produced an excellent video on Cuba that’s fun and informative.

The US and Cuba reached an agreement for direct flights.  Flight availability to Cuba from various US airports and search engines is ALWAYS changing, so be sure to try multiple search engines and cities, if possible.  Readers have reported that some flights to Cuba from the US may be opening up.  When I went to Cuba in December 2015, flights were not scheduled yet. My friends and I flew via Cancun, and continued our journey to Havana.

Note:  Regulations surrounding US travel to Cuba are always changing, so make sure you check the current rules before planning your trip.  There are limited opportunities to use miles & points, but you can save some money.  I’ll show you how later in this series!

Viva Cuba Part 2 The Basics Visa Requirements

We Loved Supporting the Cuban People – and Had Lots of Fun in the Process!

My travel partners included many of the same friends who accompanied me to Croatia!

Robbie (pink hair) is a professional dance instructor who teaches salsa, kizomba, and bachata.  Sarita is also a dance teacher, as well as a graphic designer.  Gissell teaches fitness classes and loves rock climbing.

On this trip, I went with 3 new friends – Diana, a local art teacher, Chelsea, who manages a hostel, and Antonio, who works in IT design.  Traveling as a group of 7 was fun, but definitely challenging at times!  We had a great time together, and can’t wait to return!

Viva Cuba! Trip Report Index:

The Basics – Visa Requirements

Check to Make Sure You Fit in the 12 Approved Travel Categories

Traveling to Cuba requires some additional research and planning.  You will need to make sure your visit falls into one of the 12 categories for approved travel into Cuba, which are:

  • Family visits
  • Official business of the US 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

I went to share my “support for the Cuban people” by getting to know the locals and spending money to encourage small business there.

Viva Cuba Part 2 The Basics Visa Requirements

You May Fall Into an Approved Travel Category Without Even Knowing It!

According to the US Department of Treasury FAQs, you can get a license to visit Cuba as long as your intentions are to positively influence the country .  Examples of this are things like human rights projects, advocating a peaceful transition to democracy, and encouraging activity that bolsters Cuba’s society.  Rick Steves says that you should pick a category and stick to it. 

You do NOT need to go with an organized tour group.  My friends and I booked all of the travel ourselves.

Getting the Actual Visa

It was very easy to get the actual visa!  You don’t need to apply ahead of time.  I got mine while standing in line at the Cubana Air check-in counter in Cancun, Mexico!  While my friends and I were waiting to check-in for our flight to Havana, a staff member handed out blank visa forms.

Viva Cuba Part 2 The Basics Visa Requirements

Our Visas Were Stamped, but Our Passports Were Not

The visas cost only ~$25.  However, some of us were charged an extra $20 at the Cubana Air counter to “leave” the country!  The agent would not provide us with a receipt, and he gave us our change from his own pocket!

Viva Cuba Part 2 The Basics Visa Requirements

A Few of Us Couldn’t Leave for Cuba Unless We Paid a Fee!

Later in the trip, our host family verified that we should NOT have been charged this extra $20 fee.

Bottom Line

Getting a visa to Cuba is very easy!  You will receive a Cuban visa at the Cancun airport at check-in for your Cuban flight.

You do NOT need to go with any organized group.  I wanted to share my “support for the Cuban people” by listening to their stories about life in Cuba and spending money to support the small businesses there.  I also wanted to learn about Cuba’s history of architecture, music, and dance.

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12 responses to “Viva Cuba! Part 2 – The Basics: Visa Requirements

  1. The visa fee was $20 with Interjet at the Cancun airport.

  2. @DaveS in Dec I flew with Air China out of Montreal and was charged $25 Canadian. When I flew them again in May the travel card was included in my ticket.

    @Emily, yeah, the exit fee to leave Cuba was eliminated last year, maybe even 2014. Sorry you got scammed there, it happens to all of us.

  3. @Emily- also “When I learned about Cuba’s more relaxed policy towards American visitors, I jumped at the opportunity!”, Cuba hasn’t relaxed it’s policy towards Americans, in fact, they’ve never had an issue with Americans coming for a visit. America is the one who had the issue and still has a bit of an issue with it.

  4. Also, flights are currently available direct from this country on American and Silver Air only beginning September. JetBlue and SW will post their flights soon.

  5. Would you share your schedule or an example of what a good full-time schedule could look like?

  6. You know that just “spending money” doesn’t count as an approved reason for travel to Cuba. The US government has specifically said that travel for tourist purposes is not permitted.

  7. @ Dave S., Karen, Nina- Thanks for pointing this out!

    @ John, Beth- Our trip included considerable time talking and learning with dozens of locals and educating ourselves about their history and current life. We did not just spend money.

  8. @Beth, while you are correct in that going to Cuba JUST for a vacation is technically not legal the US government has not fined anyone in over 10 years. I have never been asked for my full time schedule. They have also approved flights in/out of Varadero which is strictly a beach resort town.

    Or you could go to Cuba and donate items, get a receipt and boom, you’re totally legal and good. Caritas Cuba is ALWAYS in need of: medical supplies (any and all over the counter stuff is needed as well as pretty much anything else medical wise), shoes (any type, all sizes, men, women, and kids), and/or underwear (men, women, kids, all sizes). It’s a very easy drop off in Verdado Havana and they will happily provide you with a receipt of your donation. http://www.caritas.org/where-we-are/latin-america/cuba/.

    • @Karen, I read your comments with interest. You seem to have quite a bit of experience traveling to Cuba. I’m considering going with my two children (9 and 11) who are homeschooled. Which of the 12 categories does donating goods qualify for?
      I know this is an old thread, but hope someone can enlighten me here!

  9. @ Karen- You’re incredibly helpful! I was never asked about my schedule either. And thank you so much for the donation info. We did donate items on our trip (2 suitcases full), but only have pictures. Whenever I go to a poorer/developing countries, I always bring care packages. http://millionmilesecrets.com/2012/01/10/stealing-hotel-toiletrie/

  10. @ Emily-I plan on going in December for 2 nights. Do you see that as an issue? This will be just for tourist stuff, however I am fascinated with Cuba and would definitely visit and explore as much as I can in those 2 days. It wouldn’t be 2 days on the beach vacation. I’m guessing I could fall under “educational activity”. Thoughts?

  11. What if you’re flying non-stop from US to Cuba? Do you have to purchase tourist card somewhere in advance? I’ve seen some websites doing this for Europeans.