Americans can now travel to Cuba. It's still technically illegal to go as a tourist; however, a January 2015 policy change made by former President Barack Obama has loosened restrictions, making it possible for Americans to vacation on the island. I was in Cuba recently for a story about the underground internet there and found the island intoxicatingly beautiful and charming. This short video is a montage of what I saw, followed by instructions on how to visit the island as an American.
Traveling to Cuba isn't hard anymore
It used to be difficult for Americans to visit Cuba, but in January 2015, former President Obama announced a "new course" with Cuba that included an easing of many restrictions banning Americans from traveling to the island.
You still can’t go as a straight-up tourist, but there are now 12 broad categories under which an American can legally travel to Cuba. And you no longer need to apply for a license and wait to get approval. You now just buy your ticket online and declare which of the 12 categories your trip falls under. All of this happens on an easy process. No applications; no waiting period.
Last year commercial airlines like Jet Blue and American made trips to Cuba even more accessible by offering flights to the island. This has helped drive down the price of tickets. Tickets from Washington, DC, are as low at $150 round trip.
What are these 12 categories, and do I fit into any of them?
The Obama administration outlined the following categories for legal travel to Cuba:
- Family visits
- Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity (this requires an extra license)
- 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 information materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines
Read details about each category.
If you're looking to just lie on a beach, you still aren't allowed to travel to Cuba. But if your idea of good travel is connecting with people and learning about a culture, you could be there next week.
I sat next to a couple on my flight to Havana who were going to Cuba under the "professional research" category. He is a musician, she an architect. Their itinerary was filled with visits to museums, concerts, and historic buildings in Havana. They saw this as a trip that would provide inspiration and education for their work. The official language for this category makes you affirm that you are a "full-time professional whose travel transactions are directly related to my profession, professional background, or area of expertise." These two were qualified for the category and had no problem getting a visa.
"Almost every American should be able to travel to Cuba under one of these categories," Sen. Jeff Flake, a major sponsor of the new policy, told me in 2015. One lawyer who specializes in Cuba-US issues told the New York Times that if you can’t think up an itinerary that fits into one of the 12 categories, "you’re not trying." This doesn’t mean you need to be deceptive or dishonest. Instead, you can build a trip around the broad and inclusive language of the new regulations. Be forthright about the purpose of your trip, and be ready to show an itinerary in the unlikely event that an American customs worker asks you for one.
The categories all contain the qualifier that your time in Cuba will not "include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule."
The language is meant to discourage lolling on the beach and lazily sipping mojitos at your hotel bar. As long as you have productive plans that fall within your category of choice, you can honestly certify that your travel is legal, even if you take a couple of extra hours to absorb the view while visiting the historic Morro Castle.
You can also pay someone else to do the creative thinking for you: People to People Tours — in which you are bused around the island and guided through some educational exposure to Cuban culture — are becoming popular among Americans. They can be expensive but are structured and often include lodging and food. Take a look at an example itinerary.
You have your itinerary — now what?
It's simpler than you think. Go to Google Flights and find the right ticket and buy it. Then, you have to purchase a visa for around $50. This isn't something you get approved for. You automatically qualify once you buy your ticket.
Each airline will handle the visa process a little differently and a confirmation email will spell out exactly how the visa is delivered. Here are a few examples of how airlines handle the Visa:
-Southwest: $50 – Purchase online & delivered at the gate
-JetBlue: $50 – Purchase at gate
-Delta: $50 – Purchase at gate or through mail
-United: $75 – Purchase at gate
-American: $85 – Purchase online & sent via regular mail
-Frontier: $110 – Purchase online & sent via regular mail
A few tips
Do yourself a favor and don’t stay in a hotel. There is a thriving market of private homestay options. People open their homes to visitors for an average of $35 a night. Airbnb now works on the island and is an efficient way to pin down a reservation for a private home (called a "casa particular"). If you are staying in Havana, a good place to stay is the Old City (La Habana Vieja), where the alleys are narrow and tall and the colonial residences are absolutely stunning.
My final tip is more of a lamentation: It turns out the Cuban government owns most street food operations in Havana. And after a day of exploring food options, it will be clear that the government doesn’t have culinary excellence at the top of its central planning agenda. So you're left with a few dismal options, mainly white bread rolls with lunchmeat or flat bread with a cheese-like substance akin to what you find on top of baseball stadium nachos. They call this latter option "pizza."
I was lucky to stumble upon a tiny private restaurant tucked deep into a residential neighborhood in Central Havana. The food was markedly superior to the state-run options, and I ate there every day. But your options while roaming the streets are limited. Good luck.
Travel to Cuba is easy for Americans who are interested in making it a cultural or educational experience. While the embargo is still in place, the American government is opening the door for easier access to the country. If you're up for a little extra planning, there's no reason Cuba can't be your next travel spot.
Johnny Harris produces Vox Docs, an explainer documentaries from around the globe. His new series, Borders, is launching next month. You can follow him to see updates from his travel.