UPDATE AS OF JULY 2017:
In June 2017, the White House announced it was reimposing restrictions and regulations between the US and Cuba. This reversal in policy means that travel to Cuba will go back to being a restricted activity, as it was prior to President Obama's foreign policy in 2016. Travel to Cuba is still possible - but only through sanctioned group trips under the 'people-to-people' license or one of the other license categories. According to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), travelers who booked their trip to Cuba (even partially) prior to the announcement in June will be allowed to go ahead. For the most up-to-date and accurate information on travel to Cuba, check the OFAC or US Embassy in Cuba website.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published on February 25, 2017. It has been updated for accuracy based on latest available information. Key changes are noted in italics below.
With recent political developments, finding clear information and getting answers to your planning questions isn’t as easy. Luckily, we’ve got you covered. Here is what you need to know about travel to Cuba now:
What is OFAC Certification and “People-to-People” Licenses?
Legally speaking, U.S. citizens are not permitted to travel as tourists to Cuba. U.S. law restricts travel to Cuba to 12 authorized travel categories, each requiring travelers to meet certain requirements. The categories include: 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 information materials; and certain authorized export transactions.
So how are most people getting to Cuba? Answer: under the travel category “Educational activities and people-to-people exchanges”. The category is relatively broad, only requiring people traveling under this category to have “a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travel and individuals in Cuba.” This is why Americans traveling to Cuba have to go as part of organized, sanctioned trips (called 'people-to-people' exchange tours, or the like).
Under the Obama administration (2016), you could travel under the “Educational activities and people-to-people exchanges” category without an organized tour group. You could go solo, with a friend, or your own group – so long as you technically fulfill the category requirement (i.e. have a prepared itinerary and keep receipts of all your engagements - museums, business cards, etc.) Unfortunately these policies have now been reversed.
Under the current administration (as of June 2017), you are no longer able to travel under the“Educational activities and people-to-people exchanges” category without an organized group. So travel to Cuba is still possible - but only through sanctioned group trips under the 'people-to-people' license. Alternatively you could potentially travel without an organized group trip if you qualified under one of the other license categories. For example, you could travel solo under the "Journalistic activity" category if you have the appropriate credentials listed under that category.
When you arrive at the airport before your flight, you’ll be required to sign a form certifying that you are traveling under one of the 12 travel categories and specifying which you are traveling under.
How do I get a visa for Cuba?
As of June 2017, travel to Cuba is only permitted through sanctioned group trips under the 'people-to-people' license or one of the other license categories. According to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), travelers who booked their trip to Cuba (even partially) prior to the announcement in June will be allowed to go ahead. If you are booking travel to Cuba you will want to do so with a licensed operator, who will provide you a tourist card as part of your trip package.
Traditionally you would book your flight and then apply for your visa either through a third-party operator, a travel agent, or directly with a Cuban embassy. If you were flying via Mexico or Canada you could purchase your tourist card at the airport or on the plane.
Now that you can fly directly from the States, U.S. airlines also allow you to purchase your tourist card at the boarding gate before your departure. So you don’t need to worry about getting one before you fly. The cost of the tourist card is $50 (but can vary based on which airline you fly so check ahead of time). As mentioned previously, if you are traveling to Cuba as part of a sanctioned group trip, your tourist card will likely be included as part of your trip package - so you won't need to worry about applying for it beforehand or getting it at the boarding gate.
The tourist card is valid for a single-entry for a period of up to 30 days. Upon arrival in Cuba, a portion of your tourist card is retained by immigration authorities, and you hold on to the remaining portion until it’s collected at the airport prior to your departure. It’s important that you don’t lose the second half of the tourist card because you won’t be allowed to leave the country without presenting it at passport control.
Do I Need Medical Insurance?
In addition to the tourist card, you’ll also need to obtain Cuba-specific medical insurance. Luckily, airlines have also helped streamline this process. Most include a temporary policy within the cost of your ticket. Delta, for example, automatically includes a medical insurance surcharge of $25 in the cost of each passenger's fare. The boarding pass will serve as evidence of the insurance policy should any emergency medical services be required during the trip. If you are traveling as part of a sanctioned group trip, your tourist card will likely be included as part of your trip package. you obtain your medical insurance through your airline or tour operator, be sure to hold on to your boarding pass during your entire stay in Cuba.