How to Travel to Cuba as an American Citizen

Flag barrier outside the unofficial US Embassy in Havana via

Flag barrier outside the old unoffficial US embassy in Havana by glichfield / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

If you want to travel to Cuba, or have travelled to the island, and want to get married to a Cuban citizen, you should know this: the US trade embargo with Cuba is still in place. Yes, the United States Embassy has been re-opened in Havana after being closed for more than 50 years. Yes, the Cuban embassy has also re-opened in Washington. But for an American citizen to travel to Cuba, what you need is approval from the Treasury Department. That’s because the trade sanctions are managed through Treasury and the 12 categories of people or organizations/businesses that are allowed to travel, are managed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is part of Treasury. 


Getting to Cuba

Havana Sunset via

by Jaume Escofet / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

You can go cross-eyed trying to figure out what exactly is legal when travelling to Cuba. So let’s start with those 12 categories:

  • Family visits: Re-uniting Cuban-Americans with their kin back on the island is a priority. You must be a close relative of someone living in Cuba (or someone who is temporarily in Cuba under any of the other authorized categories). That means no more than 3 generations removed by blood, marriage, or adoption from the person in Cuba you are visiting, or from a common ancestor. That would mean just about any Cuban-American qualifies for a trip to see relatives in Cuba.
  • Official US Government business – This includes foreign government business and certain inter-governmental organizations. This is pretty self-explanatory. These are the folks who are actually writing, or re-writing, the rules (of trade or diplomatic ties, etc.). They know who they are.
  • Journalistic Activity: These are full-time journalists, supporting broadcast & technical personnel, and freelance journalists. As with most of these categories, you can head to the beach, but your “free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full time schedule” is a no-no. A vaguely enforced no-no at best. And journalists can and do fall in love and get married abroad.
  • Professional Research: Whether or not you qualify for this category will depend on your profession and area of expertise. Zoologists with a specialization in Penguin mating behavior may not get approved. But you never know. This also includes professional meetings without a focus on research. The big exception is Tourism. For now, attending conferences in Cuba on Tourism is forbidden. As with most other categories, your down-time theoretically should not be excessive.
  • Educational Activities: This category involves people like faculty, staff, and students at US schools who visit Cuba for academic exchanges with Cuban counterparts or who perform non-commercial research. It may include providing testing services to Cubans or internet-based courses to Cubans, among other things. Cuban scholars may participate in US-based programs or activities as well. It includes secondary students participating in formal study courses or other educational programs.
  • People-to-People Exchanges: This one gets interesting. Officially it falls under Educational Activities, but it involves exchanges on an individual level or in groups, but sponsored and overseen by a third-party organization. They are non-academic and promote “people to people contact.” Global volunteers is a good example. The people-to-people program started in 1999, was suspended in 2003, and re-started in 2011. There is one major condition: you must not engage in activities with any “prohibited official” of the government, or any “prohibited official” of the Cuban communist party. For most people in these groups, that should never be a problem. Tour agencies offer package tours to see Cuba under this sub-category. It’s likely your best bet to travel to the island. Google People-to-People Cuba and you get there quick.
  • Religious Activities: You must be part of a US-based religious organization and be going to Cuba to be part of a religious program of activities, rather than just an individual pilgrim. Your free-time must be “consistent” with a full-time schedule of organized religious activity.
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic & other competitions, and exhibitions: The competitions may be amateur or semi-professional. Athletes can and do meet people and fall in love just like everyone else.
  • Support for the Cuban people: This category can include human rights organizations, independent groups that promote transition to democracy, & NGO’s that aim to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Again, careful with excessive free time. How they measure that when you return home to the USA is a good question. Do NGOers fall in love more easily?
  • Humanitarian Groups: A long list that includes:
    • Medical relief projects
    • Disaster relief projects
    • Construction of needed infrastructure
    • Historical Preservation projects
    • Environmental projects
    • Rural development
    • Microfinancing.
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The serious do-gooders and responders, in other words. Too busy to meet the love of your life in the Cuban countryside while building a school. Then again … maybe not. No worries about exceeding your “free time” right?

  • Activities of Private Foundations or Research or Educational Institutes: These groups must have an “established interest in international relations” and be in Cuba to collect data or do further research for non-commercial purposes. Free time must be consistent with a full-time schedule.
  • Exportation, Importation, or Transmission of Information or Informational Materials: The title says it all.
  • Certain Export Transactions: for business people who know what the rules are already. Or have a good lawyer.
  • Learn About Cuban Visas

    Good luck and enjoy your trip to Cuba!


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