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Yes, Americans Can Still Travel to Cuba. Here’s How

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Cuba is a beautiful Caribbean island with a complex history and rich culture. But for decades, it’s been just beyond the reach of many Americans. In addition to several difficult years involving devastating hurricanes, pandemic-era travel restrictions, ever-changing U.S. State Department travel advisories, and frequently updated trade and tourism regulations, it’s not surprising that many Americans may be confused about whether and how U.S. travelers can legally visit Cuba.

As of early 2024, the short answer is: Yes, you can travel to Cuba as a U.S. citizen. There are, however, some hoops you’ll need to jump through, because (technically speaking) travel to Cuba for pure vacationing isn’t allowed. For U.S. citizens interested in planning a trip to Cuba, here’s what you need to know before you go.

Can you travel to Cuba?

The relationship between the United States and Cuba has been tumultuous, to say the least. Following the Cuban Revolution during the 1950s and the subsequent rise of Fidel Castro’s regime, diplomatic ties between the two nations deteriorated rapidly. In 1960, the United States imposed a trade embargo on Cuba, effectively severing most economic and political connections.

In the time since, travel between the two countries has been heavily restricted by the U.S. government, which has implemented various policies to discourage or prohibit its citizens from visiting Cuba. Making matters more complex, those policies often changed with each presidential administration. The island nation was more accessible during the Carter, Clinton, and Obama years and more closed off during the G.W. Bush and Trump years.

In 2014, it became significantly easier for Americans to visit Cuba after President Obama announced a series of measures aimed at normalizing diplomatic ties and loosening travel restrictions to allow Americans to visit for certain purposes (more on that later). Additionally, in 2016, commercial flights between the United States and Cuba resumed for the first time in more than half a century.

However, the Trump administration made it significantly harder to visit Cuba. During his time in office, President Trump enacted more than 200 measures against Cuba, which included limiting what Cuban airports flights from the U.S. could fly into, banning cruises from stopping in Cuba, and eliminating the most common visa category under which U.S. citizens planned legal visits to Cuba (known as “people-to-people” travel).

Then in May 2022, President Biden’s administration announced it would undo many of the Cuba-related restrictions enacted under Trump and would work on expanding authorized travel. Under the new order, regular passenger and charter airplanes are again allowed to fly to any Cuban airport (and airlines announced new flight paths). And officials said that the “people-to-people” category of travel, under which many tours and organized travel companies bring U.S. travelers to Cuba, will ultimately return, though there is no timeline on when that will happen.

Cuba’s music scene is also a big draw.

How to travel to Cuba as an American citizen

U.S. law states that those who want to go to Cuba need to qualify for a “general license” based on one of 12 approved categories.

The 12 categories currently authorized by U.S. government, for travel to Cuba are:

  • Family visits
  • 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

Licenses are self-qualifying, meaning that when you purchase your airline ticket, you’ll be asked to state your category in a signed affidavit before checkout.

When former President Obama first eased travel restrictions to Cuba, the move allowed leisure travelers to pursue self-led trips under the “people-to-people” educational activities category. Today, the “support for the Cuban people” category is the most popular because it’s the broadest.

What the “support for the Cuban people” license entails

To adhere to the requirements for independent travel under “support for the Cuban people,” travelers must first declare the category (when prompted) while booking flights and lodging. As part of the license, travelers are also expected to prepare an itinerary outlining how their trip will fulfill the category’s terms and contribute to Cuba’s local economy. (This itinerary could be—but isn’t always—requested on arrival to the country.)

An appropriate “support for the Cuban people” itinerary could including staying in casa particulares (locally run guesthouses), visiting Cuban-owned businesses, going on tours (like classic car rides or architecture walking tours) run by Cubans, visiting independent museums and galleries, partaking in cultural dance and music classes, and eating at locally owned restaurants and markets. (For specific recommendations and local resources, check out AFAR’s Cuba Travel Guide.)

Travelers can visit independently under that category, though it’s important you keep a record of your itinerary and your receipts: The U.S. government can ask for them up to five years after the trip.

Can you still travel to Cuba with organized tour operators?

Even though the Trump administration’s tightened restrictions on travel to Cuba prohibited organized “people-to-people” tours entirely, many tour companies have switched their approach to adhere to the “support for the Cuban people” license, according to Tom Popper, president of U.S.-based tour operator InsightCuba. Other tour providers that offer “people-to-people” trips, such as GeoEx Adventure Travel, Flash Pack, Intrepid Travel, and G Adventures, have similarly transitioned their program itineraries in order to offer legal trips to Cuba that comply with the regulations.

Challenges and considerations for travel to Cuba

Despite the easing of restrictions, traveling to Cuba as an American still presents some challenges. For example, there are limited banking services available to U.S. visitors, and American credit and debit cards are not typically accepted (as noted on the website for the U.S. embassy in Cuba), so it’s important to bring plenty of cash. Similarly, internet access in Cuba is limited—expect connections to be patchy.

How to get a Cuba Tourist Card

Cuban Tourist Card with blue pen

The terms Cuba Tourist Cards and Cuban visas are sometimes used interchangeably.

Courtesy of Easy Tourist Card

Regardless of the license under which you travel to Cuba, you’ll still need to organize a few important documents before you go.

The Cuban government requires that all travelers entering the country provide a valid passport and proof of travel insurance that covers medical emergencies and evacuation by air. In addition, all U.S. travelers—adults, children, and infants—must purchase a Cuba Tourist Card, which grants visitors a maximum stay of 30 days on the island. Tourist Cards are valid for 180 days after purchase, which means you will need to travel within six months of obtaining the document. Note that the terms Cuba Tourist Card and Cuban visa are sometimes used interchangeably; they’re the same thing.

There are several ways to buy a Cuba Tourist Card: Many U.S. airlines with direct service to Havana—among them United Airlines, JetBlue, American Airlines, Delta, and Southwest—offer Tourist Cards either online or at the gate; prices and purchase locations vary among carriers, so it’s important to check in advance.

Websites like Easy Tourist Card allow travelers to apply for and purchase Tourist Cards online with two-day international shipping. Those who plan to fly to Havana directly from the United States will need to purchase a pink Tourist Card at a rate of $100, while those departing from non-U.S. airports can purchase a green Tourist Card for $37, even with a U.S. passport.

“U.S. travelers should note that travel to Cuba has been regulated since 1963 and has changed under each presidential administration since that time,” states Popper of InsightCuba. “Cuba travel has always been a hot political topic, and you never know when the rules are going to change. I always tell people to go now—while you can.”

This article was originally published in 2018. It was most recently updated on March 21, 2024, to include current information.

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