7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Cuba

Our partners Goats on the Road break down 7 things you must know before heading to Cuba, so that your travel planning can go a lot smoother.

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As you start planning for a trip to Cuba, you may start to feel overwhelmed. There’s a lot to know before you go, including the mandatory insurance policy, visa policies, scams, potential dangers and the dual-currency system.

1. You Must Have Travel Insurance

Every traveler who visits Cuba must show proof of valid travel insurance upon entering the country.

While there are reports of some border officials failing to check, to be safe you should definitely have insurance when you land.

If you don’t have any travel insurance when your plane lands, you can buy it at the airport, but this will be more expensive than most insurance policies (around $5 / day).

2. You Must Have a Visa Before Arriving

There is no visa on arrival (VOA) in Cuba. You’ll need to procure a “Tourist Card” at the airport before boarding the plane to Cuba.

If you’re not flying from the US, these will likely be available at your airline’s check-in counter, and will cost you $20 or $25, depending on which airline you fly with.

If you’re an American Citizen traveling on an American passport, you’re technically not allowed to visit Cuba unless you fall under one of these 12 categories.

Thankfully, it’s becoming increasingly easy for Americans to travel to Cuba, as one of the twelve categories is: “support for the Cuban people”.

3. There Are 2 Currencies in Cuba!

You’ve probably already heard of the dual currency system in Cuba. Basically, there is the CUC, which is pegged 1 to 1 with the US dollar, and there’s the CUP which is the national peso. You’ll get around CUP 22-26  for US $1.

It’s always wise to carry some CUP in your pocket in case you come across a “peso food” stand. These places serve up tasty meals and charge in CUP, so you can usually get a filling dish for just a buck or two.

Peso Pizza food stand in Cuba. Photo credit: Goats on the Road

You’ll also need to carry sufficient CUC as this is what you’ll use at restaurants, hotels, casa particulars and on intercity transport.

4. There’s An American Dollar Tax

With no trade between the US and Cuba for over 50 years, it’s no surprise that Cubans have a hard time getting rid of their USD. To help cover their costs, they’ve levied a 10% American Dollar tax.

This means that if you try to exchange USD at a cardeca (money exchange booth) for Cuban currency, you’ll be charged an extra 10%. This is why it’s best that Americans convert their USD into Canadian Dollars, Euro, Great British Pounds or another major internationally accepted currency before heading to Cuba.

On another note, American debit and credit cards do not work at the ATM’s in Cuba, and you cannot pay your bill with credit card.

Bring a sufficient amount of cash to Cuba!

5. There Are Some Scams To Watch Out For

One of the most common scams in Cuba is simply giving tourists back CUP change instead of CUC.

The bills actually look quite similar so it’s important that you study each bill and become familiar with them. If a shop owner is supposed to give you change of 40 CUC and he gives it to you in CUP instead and you don’t notice, you’re essentially out $39. Be aware!

Other dangers and annoyances include selling tourists fake cigars on the street (buy from cigar shops instead), people showing you to a restaurant or hotel and receiving a commission, and some minor instances of pick-pocketing and robbery.

Be cautious of who you do business with and protect your valuables at all times.

6. Home Stays Are Called Casas Particulares

While there are some nice hotels and resorts around Cuba, the best way to see the country is by staying in Casas Particulares. These family-run home stays are the most affordable and most authentic places to stay.

Typical private room in a Casa Particular. Photo credit: Goats on the Road

Not only will you get a nice room with a comfortable bed and (usually) a private bathroom, you’ll have the added bonus of staying with a local family who can point you to less-touristy attractions, and even cook dinner for you (for an added cost) upon request.

7. Don’t Support Government-Run Businesses

There are enough locally-owned restaurants, hotels and tour guides around the country that you really don’t have to go to the government-run places.

Put some of your valuable tourist dollars back into the pockets of the local people who work so hard to make sure that your trip is the best it can be.

Typically, family-run restaurants are called “paladares” and they’re a much better alternative to the state-run places, especially those seeking a closer interaction with Cuban culture and better, homemade Cuban food.

There are plenty of paladares in most major tourist towns so you should have no problem finding them and helping the local private business economy.

Heading to Cuba? Download our FREE Insider’s Guide!

Put down the cigars and step out of the vintage cars! Explore historical sites of revolution, taste peso food, or go diving among vibrant marine life.

7 Comments

  • Darren said

    I was just in Cuba and I agree with most of these points. They're important to know.
    However, I landed at Havana airport (HAV) without a visa and I was able to purchase one ($75) at the visa desk at the immigration/passport control area (local currency or dollars only; a guard had to walk me through security to a bank machine then back through security to pay for the visa then I had to go through customs and security again to enter Cuba.
    I'll go back again and learn from what didn't go right the first time!

  • Richard L. nelson said

    My Wife and I went to Cuba early on thru Road Scholar Travel who had a People to People permit and had a GREAT time. We were able to visit dance studios to watch practices of national dancers. Artist homes for a personal visit, schools,etc.
    Loved staying three night at the famous Hotel National in Havana.
    Eating in private eateries was special as opposed to Government places. They start you out with a drink and afterwards with a cigar.
    Use a company who can expose you to things that are special.

  • Shayla said

    We were just there as well and had a great time!
    I would also recommend converting your USD into Pesos or Canadian dollars as well to avoid the 10% fee that is ON TOP OF the conversion fee.
    I'd also highly recommend downloading maps.me BEFORE you get there so you know where you are at all times.
    I actually made a video about it with all of my tips in the description:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCAdzK3MlBg&t=198s

  • Brooke said

    I went a month ago and met our Gulfstream Sailing Club at the Hemingway Yacht Club. It was quite an interesting experience. Definitely get a real map especially around Havana. THe Tropicana Night CLub was one of the Highlights of my trip. It also is better to hire a taxi by the day instead of place to place which gets to be extremely expensive. Air BnB is the way to go! I stayed at 2 different homes and found them most delightful and inexpensive. I also stayed at the Hotel Deauville which at one time was a good place, however it really needs a complete upgrade in the rooms. However going on line is almost impossible unless you are staying at a hotel and then it is incorporated into your room charges. The Deauville is FREE in their bar and it is right on the ocean and famous road. Make sure you turn your phone off or you will have roaming charges! Lot's of Lobster is available at restaurants. Sloppy Joe's has been redone and is really too "up to date" but the best Bar is the "FLoradita" and you must have your picture taken next to the Bronze Hemingway you feel like he is really looking at you and the Daiquiri's are wonderful! People are lovely.

  • Adrian said

    So, I have heard from a few Americans that have been to Cuba recently that you do not
    need to do anything now to enter Cuba except go to your American airport, buy visa there
    for $50, and thats it. No worries about the 12 ways to enter. True?
    Where exactly at the airport do you get the Cuban visa?

  • Douglas said

    I have been to Cuba twice, and from everything that the I learned or heard, it's not the Cuban's who care if the American's come to their country, it's the Americans who care if Americans go to Cuba. I am a Canadian, and I almost had to BEG to get my passport stamped by immigration on both occasions. They are very aware that some travelers may be bypassing their own country's travel regulations, not Cuba's.

  • Brittany Jones said

    If you are an American wanting to travel to Cuba I found this article super helpful! https://stamptrampstravel.com/how-to-visit-cuba-as-an-american-flying-out-of-the-u-s/

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