Cuba Tourism On The Rise: How To Go As a Yank!

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Palm Trees in Cuba

It’s a commonly held belief that it is not legal for Americans to travel to Cuba. But while researching a potential trip of my own to the island, I realized that Americans can take holidays to Cuba under certain circumstances.

If you’re an American and you want to travel to Cuba legally, continue reading to learn the circumstances under which this is possible.

Cuba Travel Licenses

Technically speaking, it is not illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba, but rather to spend money in Cuba, due to the trade embargo. The only way to receive authorization from the U.S. government to travel to Cuba and spend money is to obtain what is called a Cuba Travel License.

There are two types of Cuba Travel Licenses: General licenses and specific licenses. You don’t need to fill out any paperwork in order to travel to Cuba via general license, an authorization which covers professional journalists, academic researchers, conference attendees and officials on government business.

Conversely, you must apply in advance for a specific license which covers all other types of travel to Cuba. Except, it’s interesting to note, tourism – travelers who want to visit Cuba solely for the purpose of tourism are technically not allowed to travel to Cuba under U.S. law.

You need a specific license for all other reasons not yet listed, whether you need to visit family in Cuba, are a freelance journalist or want to volunteer in Cuba for humanitarian purposes. Click here to apply for a specific license to travel legally to Cuba.

People-to-People Programs

Another options U.S. citizens can use to travel legally to Cuba is called the “Person-to-Person” program, which is a fancy name for an organized tour to Cuba. These tours, which are operated by companies such as National Geographic Expeditions and InsightCuba, are extremely expensive, and should only be used as a last resort for Americans traveling to Cuba.

Do I Need a Cuba Travel License if I Enter via a Third Country?

Most Americans who’ve ever considered traveling to Cuba know that a popular way of entering Cuba is to do so via a third country, usually Mexico. It’s important to note, however, that doing this does not exempt you from needing a Cuba travel license (or, in the absence of that, traveling with a People-to-People program).

If you do not have the legal authorization to travel to Cuba, it doesn’t matter whether you travel via a third country or take one of the few direct flights offered between the U.S. and Cuba each day – it’s illegal.

So, what kind of punishment do Americans who travel to Cuba illegally face? While it’s untrue that admitting to having entered Cuba will prevent you from being re-admitted to the United States upon your return, you may face hefty fines (upwards of several thousand dollars), which can be even higher and, in the worst cases, accompanied by jail time if you lie and perjure yourself about having traveled to Cuba as an American.

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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