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The definitive guide to Cuban visas requirements
What visas and approvals you need to travel to Cuba remains the most commonly asked question for people interested in visiting or studying in Cuba. Unfortunately, the answer is not as straight forward as it should ideally be. The first thing to do is to separate Cuban requirements from the requirements of the US government.
1. Requirements of Cuba
All visitors to Cuba are required to arrive with a visa—known as ‘Tourist Card.’ This is valid for 30 days, although it can be extended for an additional month once you are in the country. If you are lucky enough to be from Canada, you will automatically be issued a 90-day visa. If you are not Canadian and plan on staying in Cuba for more than 60 days, it is relatively easy (and super fun) to take a short weekend trip to Cancun, Miami or Panama, where you can get a new visa and re-start your 60 days.
Visitors from Europe and Asia flying directly to Cuba usually have to source their tourist card in advance. These can be purchased online, from tour agencies or directly from your nearest Cuban embassy. The process is quite easy but can take some time as the tourist card will need to be posted out to you.
If flying to Cuba from the United States or any other country in North, Central or South America, you can usually get your tourist card upon check in at your departure airport or, if you are transiting, at the final gate during your flight to Cuba.
2. Requirements of the US
Unfortunately, these are intentionally grey and confusing, and are not very well understood. However, there are still many Americans travelling to Cuba despite the rhetoric of the current US administration—in 2017 alone, there were 1.5 million visitors from the US to Cuba.
The most important thing to remember is that Americans cannot visit Cuba solely for the purpose of tourism and cannot stay at hotels owned by the Cuban military. American travelers must self-certify that their travel falls within one of the permitted reasons for travelling to Cuba. The most common categories that our students use are: (a) support for the Cuban people, (b) travelling to Cuba for education purposes; or (c) travelling to Cuba for workshops. A full list of these categories can be found here https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba_faqs_new.pdf
To date, there is are no reports of customs officers or OFAC officials checking travelers’ compliance with these regulations or undertaking reviews of their self-certification; however, if you are American, it is a good practice to keep a short journal of your activities in Cuba in case you are ever asked.
Of course, OFAC restrictions only apply to US citizens and not to foreign nationals. Interestingly, for non-US travelers transiting in the US, your airline will still ask you to mark a box stating the purpose of your travel to Cuba. Given that OFAC regulations don’t apply to foreign nationals, we can only
assume that it is administratively easier to get everyone to fill out the same form rather than have one for Americans and another one for non-Americans.
There is no doubt that visa requirements for Cuba are a little more complicated than your typical Caribbean island, but Cuba is a destination that is worth the trouble. A country frozen in time, it still offers travelers an experience unlike any other in the world.