How can U.S. citizens travel to Cuba and not get in trouble w/ the U.S.?
September 10, 2018 6:16 PM   Subscribe

A friend and I (U.S. citizens) have booked flights and an Airbnb for a six-day stay in Havana, Cuba, in November. I was confident that I understood the U.S. regulations regarding Cuba visitation, but my friend is getting pushback from her family about our trip. We could certainly use some wisdom from any American who has traveled to Cuba recently to alleviate our doubts since the current administration tightened the Obama-era rules on visitation there.

It's my understanding that in order to visit Cuba, when returning to the U.S. I must be prepared to declare to U.S. passport control that my travel was for one of twelve categories that the State Department identifies (such as religious, educational, journalistic, etc.). And then I have to be prepared to show my detailed written itinerary of what I did in Cuba, hour-by-hour, that applies to whatever category I chose. Additionally, I know that we need to avoid spending money at businesses that are controlled by the regime, and we need visas.

My questions are:
1. Does the above summarize everything we have to do to visit Cuba and not get in trouble when we return home?
2. What is the likelihood of U.S. customs/passport control actually asking for our written itinerary when we get home? Are they going to be sticklers for detail?
3. Has anyone had the experience of having to produce receipts for their expenditures in Cuba upon our return to the U.S. (or later)?
4. Where should we purchase a visa to enter Cuba?
5. On the way home, on Aeromexico, I will be changing planes in Mexico City. If I ask the Cubans not to stamp my passport, upon my return to the U.S. there will be no evidence that I went to Cuba. Can I just avoid telling U.S. customs about my trip to Cuba, and say that I went to Mexico (which is true)?

It's also true that we should have ironed out these details before we bought tickets... but the airfares were so cheap ($325 roundtrip from California - Cuba) that I wanted to snag them before they went up. Thanks for all the wisdom anyone can impart to us!
posted by fenwaydirtdog to Travel & Transportation around Cuba (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've been to Cuba from the US several times in the past year, for an authorized category of travel. I will say that I have never had anyone either in the US or in Cuba ask to see any kind of paperwork or itinerary of any kind, though I always have it ready and available just in case.

1. I believe so, yes. Note that you also need to have evidence of travel health insurance in Cuba (so, a print out of your travel health insurance info) though again, no one has ever asked to see mine.
2. Again, this has never happened to me or anyone I know, though one should never underestimate the capriciousness of US border control.
3. Nope, though I never buy anything fancy.
4. You can buy visas from an online service, I've used and it worked fine, you pay $40 extra to buy it in advance. Theoretically you should also be able to buy it at the airport, but that always made me nervous.
5. That's up to you! I think it's better to be honest than not especially if you were going for an approved travel category, but Cuban emigration will certainly not stamp your passport if you ask them not to.
posted by LeeLanded at 7:25 PM on September 10, 2018

Best answer: 1. Yes, although I have to admit I've never heard of the 'avoid spending money at businesses controlled by the regime' thing before. (Oh! DON'T bring in US dollars, you get an extra ding on the exchange rate! I brought in euros, but I think basically any non-USD denomination will be fine. Also there's a limited amount you can change at the airport, but it'll get you into town and feed you for a day or two until you can get to the bureau de change.)

2. Low to nil. No one asked for my itinerary, nor my housemate's when she traveled. (She actually had made one! I forgot to borrow it from her.) With the admission that I last traveled to Cuba in early January 2016, this is not something that the government is super-intense about, is my understanding. The current administration is more concerned with the flow of money at much higher levels than tourists.

3. No. (Datapoint of one.) I have honestly never heard about this happening. I'm not even sure I got receipts at most places.

4. At the airport. You'll go to special desk and hand someone the requisite sum of money ($75 when I went, cash), they'll staple a visa in your passport, all stamps will go on this stapled page, which will be removed when you re-enter the country. (So if you want a record, take a picture!) This got me past a vast security line and into a special security line that went stupidly fast, so I kinda recommend it :)

5. Please do not lie to US Customs. It's completely legal to travel to Cuba under one of the special categories. I can think of three different ways they can figure out you've just been to Cuba without looking at your passport. You don't need to lie, so please don't. They may only ask about your last port of entry anyways. Don't answer questions they don't ask (like, on general principle), but I would not go in planning to lie.

I really hope someone who has traveled to Cuba more recently than I have can offer some more reassurance, but for real -- Cubans want you there. The US changed stuff to do with hotels, I think, and very high-level monetary issues, but they have not tightened tourist travel. When I went through, I found everyone very relaxed -- I got way, way more questions when I returned to the US after traveling through Ukraine during a very short lull in the fighting. (My actual conversation at JFK: "Why...were you in Kiev?" "The cheapest flight routed through there, and since it was a 20-hour layover, I spent the night in the city." "Okay!" *stamp stamp on my way*. I am white, female-presenting and give a good middle-class impression, others' mileage may vary.) From what I pick up elsewhere on the internet, travel for regular people hasn't really changed.

Cuba is a wonderful place. It's good you're researching, but remember that tons of people still travel there all the time; it's nothing like it was in the 90's, or otherwise pre-Obama administration deals. Be relaxed, be prepared to stand in a lot of lines, but remember that it's a new era still, and it's almost certainly going to go fine.
posted by kalimac at 7:30 PM on September 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

2. What is the likelihood of U.S. customs/passport control actually asking for our written itinerary when we get home? Are they going to be sticklers for detail?

I did this trip as a student (on an educational trip) with a group from my University back in the Bush era. Half of those of us returning went into one line at customs and didn't have anything checked. The other half of us returning went into another line and spent several hours being interrogated as to the purpose of the trip, itinerary etc. Our take on it was it depends on the customs agent. I could imagine it being the same now. So make sure you have your paperwork and then hopefully you won't need it!
posted by Toddles at 10:35 PM on September 10, 2018

Yeah, don't lie to customs, super bad idea. You probably won't go to jail, but you can also easily be marked by them as someone to harass for the rest of your life (a friend of mine got marked like this when he pulled an attitude with a customs officers "I have rights!" sort of thing).

I've never heard about American's having problems with the US after travelling to Cuba. I talked to a bunch of American's last time I went and this was after the new rules were in place.

I actually was asked to check a box when going into Cuba (from Canada) regarding the nature of my trip (I'm guessing this is because the airline does business in America or we were crossing American air space). I might have checked 'journalism' (I was taking pictures that I could have sold - I didn't sell any pictures from that trip).

I did a bunch of research the first time I went to Cuba and couldn't find any instances of prosecution for travelling to Cuba.

My flight into Cuba included the visa fee (and they gave us visa cards when we were on the plane),this might be true for your flight as well; check with your airline.

Have a great time!
posted by el io at 1:38 AM on September 11, 2018

I went to Cuba in December 2017 (after Trump's regulations change) on a direct flight from LA under the "support for the Cuban people" category. I got my passport stamped. I was not asked for documentation and had no issues - the only thing US Customs said to me was "welcome back!"

I don't think it's even possible to get receipts for everything you buy. Receipts didn't seem to be much of a thing there.

This forum
is a good source of up-to-date anecdotes about the experiences of frequent Cuba travelers. At the time of my trip, the consensus there was that it's very low risk.
posted by introcosm at 8:04 AM on September 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I went to Cuba with my family a year ago we declared it as religious travel. Seemed me the obvious choice as who is to define what's religious.
posted by zeikka at 11:32 AM on September 11, 2018

Response by poster: My trip to Cuba was fantastic. And upon my return to the U.S. (LAX), after I used the computer at customs to declare that I went to Cuba, the customs agent just said "have a nice day," and sent me on my way. So though I had a detailed itinerary prepared, they never asked to see it. I'm glad I prepared an itinerary, though, just in case they had. Thank you all for your help!
posted by fenwaydirtdog at 10:29 AM on January 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

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