Cuba Travel FAQs: What You Need To Know Before Visiting

Now that travel to Cuba is open for the U.S., we thought we'd take a few moments to answer some questions we are frequently asked about traveling to this weathered charm of a destination. Liz recently visited Cuba and gathered plenty of insight to help you plan your ideal experience in this unique and vibrant land.

Traveling to Cuba is legal now, right?

Due to recent changes in American regulations, travel restrictions to Cuba have been loosened, but a visa is still required to travel. There are several different types of visas but the most popular is for a people-to-people program. We can obtain the required visa for you very easily.

What is a people-to-people travel program?

A people-to-people program requires interactions with Cuban people and cultural experiences in your itinerary. The idea is you are helping build positive relationships between Americans and Cubans while traveling.

Do I have to participate in all activities on my itinerary?

We understand that not all travelers like to have overly structured itineraries, but because of the visa regulations, there are certain things on your itinerary that you’ll have to see, however, you’ll have complete discretion with what you want to see before traveling. Other tour operators might lock you into a set program you must follow to a T, but our guides are fantastic and there is an element of flexibility, so be sure to speak up about your preferences.

Will I be with a guide the entire time or can I explore on my own?

Unless your Spanish is on point, you’ll want your guide around. Not many Cubans speak English well at all. However, there will be free time built into your program to explore and get a taste of the local flavor, if you wish. Again, talk to your guide and let him know what you’d like to do.

What form of currency do Cubans use? What do I need to know about exchange rates?

Cuban residents use two types of currency, the peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). The current exchange ratio from USD to CUC  is technically 1:1, but because of high exchange fees from the USD, you’re often left with the equivalent of 87 cents in CUC to each dollar. Plenty of articles online will advise you to exchange your dollars to euros before you leave, because Cubans place lower taxes on this exchange, but because each euro equals about $1.12, it barely makes a difference whether you exchange dollars or euros for CUCs.

Where can I exchange money in Cuba?

Exchanging money in Cuba is a lot easier to do than it has been in the past. Your first opportunity will be at the airport. There are several other places you can exchange money — hotels, local banks, and your guide can assist you. They may even be able to help you find a better exchange rate.

Do Cubans accept U.S. currency?

Here’s the thing — Cuba is known for not accepting U.S. dollars, but on occasion, you can find a Cuban who will exchange USD for CUC with you at a 1:1 rate. For example, the host at our casa particular did an exchange for us a few times and our driver knew people who could exchange for us, as well. But as a rule, you’ll want to convert your cash to CUCs when you arrive. Yet, here’s an exception I found: If you purchase something at the airport duty-free, let’s say it’s 18 CUCs,  if you hand them 20 CUCs, they’ll give you $2 back in change. So, it’s a nice way to get a few dollars back before your departure to the U.S.

May I purchase items in Cuba and bring them back with me to the U.S.?

There is no limit on how much money you can spend, but there is a limit on the value of items you can bring home with you. Each person is allowed to bring up to $400 worth of Cuban goods into the U.S., and no more than $100 of that can be alcohol or tobacco products, like cigars, for example. Save your receipts because you might be asked to show them to government officials at border control. But there is no limit on things like books, artwork, photographs, films, and CDs.

Will my debit and credit cards work in Cuba? Are there ATMs?

This is still changing, but as of right now, they are not widely accepted. Some hotels will accept them, but most American banks will not allow transactions to go through in Cuba. So, for right now, stick to cash and keep an eye out for updates.

How does the cost of goods in Cuba compare to the U.S.?

You’re not going to spend $45 for a cigar in Cuba like you would in the U.S. The average price range is from 2 to 10 CUC depending on the brand and where you purchase it in Cuba. Art is pretty standard — you could get street art for 10 or 15 CUC and some Cuban fine art for upwards of 150 CUC. As far as souvenirs, it’s like any Caribbean Island. I got a clave for 5 CUC and a straw hat for less than 10 CUC. Don’t be afraid to barter with the Cubans. They don’t have access to a lot of things we do in the states. You can negotiate a price with American goods you’re willing to part with — for instance, an old cell phone, toiletries, or small liquor bottle.

Will my cell phone or smart device work in Cuba?

Also changing. As of right now T-Mobile or Sprint may offer very expensive roaming capabilities, but for the most part, you can expect to be disconnected.  You could take an unlocked phone and purchase a SIM card in Cuba, but prepare for long lines at the phone company store. Another option is to go to any hotel and buy a roaming card for use inside the hotel only. It costs about 10 CUC an hour.

Will I have access to the Internet in Cuba?

This can be a bit tricky, since WiFi is not widely available on the island, and in some cities, not available at all. In hotels or by asking your guide, you can purchase a card that will give you access to WiFi in designated hotspot locations for one hour and it costs about 2 to 3 CUC. Most are located in hotels or public squares throughout the city. You don’t have to be a hotel guest to use its WiFi. In fact, our group sat in the lobby of the Melia Cohiba and enjoyed cigars we purchased at the hotel’s cigar shop as we got caught up with life on the Internet. When I was finished, I asked our guide if he wanted to use the remaining time on the card and he said no thanks, he was not WiFi dependent like me. Ha!