How can a US citizen travel to Cuba?
May 3, 2006 7:46 PM   Subscribe

How easy and how smart would it be for a U.S. citizen to try to go to Cuba?

I'd like to take a trip this summer. I will probably go to Mexico again, and I'd really like to know if making a side trip to Cuba would make sense.

I remember hearing a year or two ago that the State Department was considering lessening its travel restrictions for US citizens to Cuba. Has this happened, and if so, to what extent?

A few years ago (pre 9-11) I was told by a Cuban that an American could go to Mexico and get some form of paper visa which would allow him/her to fly to Cuba without having a Cuban stamp on his/her passport. Any one have information about this or other ways to beat the system?

Also, is it crazy to even entertain the thought of travelling to Cuba? (Would I be arrested or interrogated when I set foot back in Texas?) I assume that it's now harder than ever to cover one's tracks. Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation around Cuba (34 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you really that shit-scared of your government that you have to post this anonymously? In which case, I would suggest that the thought-crime of considering travelling to Cuba is out of bounds.

Several friends of mine have been to Cuba, they have seen lots of American tourists there, it can't be too hard. The Cuban government loves greenbacks, and facilitates tourism so getting the stamp off your passport is probably very possible. You would probably ahve to ask for it though. Interested to hear from any americanos that have been though...
posted by wilful at 7:52 PM on May 3, 2006

From what I understand, all you need to do is to exit the United States to a non-Cuban country, then enter Cuba. The reverse on the way back.

However, you will be asked which other countries you have gone through since leaving the United States upon your return.

I suspect that the only hassle may be that you will be searched for whether you are returning with Cuban goods - although in this day and age, I would be worried about being added to a list somewhere.
posted by porpoise at 7:59 PM on May 3, 2006

Tens of thousands of U.S. tourists each year fly to Toronto, then Cuba, then Toronto, then their home city again. Easy as pie. I don't know what, if anything, they do about passport stamps.
posted by jellicle at 8:19 PM on May 3, 2006

I'm not sure why anyone would fly north to Canada to go south to Cuba, when there's a perfectly good Mexico right there.
posted by smackfu at 8:26 PM on May 3, 2006

Tons of Americans do this every year, perhaps tens of thousands. The Cubans will not stamp your passport if you ask them not to, they are happy to help you violate U.S. law. Your chance of getting caught is very small, but not zero.

For good advice on Cuban travel, peruse the Lonely Planet Cuba Discussion board. The main things to remember as an American traveling illegally to Cuba are 1) don't bring anything back, 2) if confronted at the border, deny everything and sign nothing.

And go for it! I was in Cuba twice in 2003 (legally) and it was an astonishing experience. I do not want to romanticize a brutal dictatorship, but Cuba is infinitely fascinating, really an island out of time. And you can't help but fall in love with the people. My emails in the profile if you want more info.
posted by LarryC at 8:27 PM on May 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

Cuba staples an entry visa to your passport, which they remove when you leave. There is no stamp. If you're a US citizen and you're smart about it, there shouldn't be any way for your government to find out you've been to Cuba, unless they've started counting staple-holes as part of their re-entry routine.
posted by louigi at 8:28 PM on May 3, 2006

The Cubans will not stamp your passport if you ask them not to, they are happy to help you violate U.S. law.

In my experience, this is true. They didn't stamp my passport, even though I am Canadian, and it is my understanding they generally don't for the benefit of US tourism.
posted by Krrrlson at 8:54 PM on May 3, 2006

I'm Canadian, but an American friend of mine went with me to Cuba about a year and a half ago, and the government hasn't kidnapped him or put him in a secret CIA prison yet. And they don't stamp your passport. They didn't even stamp my passport.
posted by number9dream at 8:57 PM on May 3, 2006

I think an important thing to consider would be the outside possibility of problems while in-country. Since you'd essentially be without the support of the US (as far as I know), I wouldn't expect to walk into a consulate or embassy if you needed the help. Maybe someone knows if the US even has a consulate in Cuba. Losing or having your passport stolen would probably be horrendously bad-- make sure to be extra safe.

It's not too much of a doom-and-gloom viewpoint, I've been robbed once (thankfully not my passport) and semi-seriously injured once on vacation outside the country, and although I didn't need it, it's be nice to know that I have that safety cushion of a tiny piece of american soil where there are people to help me in times of need. Just a thought to consider.

Best of luck on the trip and enjoy it !
posted by GreenTentacle at 9:28 PM on May 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Another reason to stay away from Cuba is if you think that you'd ever apply for a government job that requires clearance. Because it would be hard to conceal something like that from them, and they would not be too happy to learn about it.
posted by epimorph at 9:33 PM on May 3, 2006

I haven't been, but I have plenty of friends who've gone to Cuba via Mexico, and had no problems getting in or out (or getting the Cubans not to stamp their passports). And, as LarryC says, without minimizing the Castro regime, they all reported having a wonderful, wonderful time (great food, great music, great social experiences).
posted by scody at 9:33 PM on May 3, 2006

Did a quick websearch, the US does have an office in Havana.

quote "The Consular Section is staffed by an American Foreign Service Officer and a staff of Cuban citizens who can help you with a variety of problems which confront citizens abroad."

They might take issue with you being there essentially illegally, but I dont think that would preclude them helping you if need be.

As an aside someone told me once that the US state department issues special permissions to Cuba for people doing research, art, cultural trips or something of the like. Could be my failing memory messing with me though.
posted by GreenTentacle at 9:35 PM on May 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Just a slight generalisation-derail, do many countries still actually stamp passports? In my experience it's all done with computers these days and if you want a stamp in your passport, for the olde-worlde romantic charm of the thing, you have to particularly request it, not the other way around.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:37 PM on May 3, 2006

I've heard the same things scody has.
posted by scarabic at 10:34 PM on May 3, 2006

Yes, a lot of countries stamp passports Ambrose.
posted by k8t at 10:48 PM on May 3, 2006

If you can't pay the fine, don't do the crime.

Interesting comment from this website:
NOTE: According to April 2004, Congressional testimony by OFAC, Between 1990 and 2003 it opened just 93 enforcement investigations related to terrorism and collected just $9,425 in fines for terrorism financing violations since 1994.

In contrast, OFAC opened 10,683 enforcement investigations since 1990 for possible violations of the long-standing economic embargo against Fidel Castro's regime, and collected more than $8 million in fines since 1994, mostly from people who sent money to, did business with or traveled to Cuba without permission.

At the end of 2003, OFAC had just 4 full-time employees dedicated to investigating Ousama Bin Ladin's and Sadam Hussien's wealth, while nearly two dozen were working on the terrorism of Cuban embargo violation.
Maybe you can do it secretly. Maybe not. United States customs officials have been known to stalk out airports in Montreal and Toronto and observe those who transfer from flights from Cuba to flights to the States. Possibly nowadays Canadian and Mexican airlines are required to report passenger manifests to the government of the United States. Possibly the NSA and AT&T have recorded your emails and telephone conversations and will use that against you.

Also, don't forget that credit cards and travellers cheques issued by U.S. banks won't work in Cuba.

Not to dissuade you from going there; plenty of citizens of the United States have travelled to Cuba without any difficulties. But be aware of the consequences if you do decide to commit a crime.
posted by angrybeaver at 11:10 PM on May 3, 2006

This link looks informative, and pretty recent.

Technically, the problem isn't that you can't visit Cuba, it's that you can't spend money on "travel-related transactions" involving Cuba. There are no travel restrictions imposed by the State Department, or by Homeland Security. The restrictions are trade sanctions enforced by Treasury.
posted by Brian James at 11:35 PM on May 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

I just spent Easter in Cuba, they will not stamp your passport unless you specifically request it. The immi/emigration officers were very surprised by my request, but I got my stamps.
posted by DelusionsofGrandeur at 3:52 AM on May 4, 2006

Some people can go legally. My friend goes there and works with churches (underground) but she has a permit from the government as it is considered humanitarian work. She is allowed to take others with her when she goes.
posted by konolia at 4:36 AM on May 4, 2006

The National Geographic Society has published a guidebook to Cuba and has a good article on its website. It soundls like much of the above advice is good, and if you want to go there legally it is quite possible to do so and avoid even the small chance of problems arising from illegal visits. A google for "legal travel to Cuba" has many promising hits.
posted by TedW at 4:57 AM on May 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Hmm, I really didn't know Americans are permitted to enter Cuba. When I was visiting Santiago de Cuba, groups of Canadians and Germans were discussing the embargo and we were under the impression Americans would be detained at all airports and put on the earliest flight back to their point of origin.
Though interestingly enough-- on our return flight to Toronto, our aircraft was impounded by Canada Customs and Immigration due to the discovery of two Cubans who hid in one of main cargo holds. We sat at the gate for over 2 hours waiting to deplane while they did their reports.
posted by GoodJob! at 4:57 AM on May 4, 2006

Another Canadian who went to Cuba here. Ours was a 'charter' flight from Toronto, it was about half full of Americans. [That is to say, half the plane was people who could easily be identified by accent or mannerisms, there might have been more than that overall.] As far I know on one in my family got their ppt stamped (there were 8 of us going).
posted by tiamat at 5:20 AM on May 4, 2006

It's not the Cubans who don't want the Americans in Cuba, it's the Americans who don't want Americans in Cuba.

Cuba is thrilled to have tourists come to their country (American, Canadian, European, or otherwise).
posted by gwenzel at 5:21 AM on May 4, 2006

The US Gov't has more manpower directed at Cuba than at the "war on terror". The "consular office" that GreenTentacle posted about has nothing to do with "helping citizens abroad". They are there for propaganda purposes and obviously spying. All they do is waste taxpayer money coming up with stupid stunts to harass Castro's government. If you as a citizen, without a specific Treasury license went there, you would be in deep shit.

I have been to Cuba twice with a Treasury license and have traveled to Havana, Nuevitas, Baracoa, and Santiago de Cuba. It is an interesting place and I wish it was easier to go back. But the last 3 years have seen a severe clamp down by our gov't on the issuance of licenses, many more heavy fines being issued against violators and even increasingly draconian rules on spending any money there. Even Cuba has made it less easy to use greenbacks for buying anything down there. Now you must convert dollars to their currency. US dollars are effectively outlawed.

You can fly to Cuba from Canada, Mexico or many spots in the Caribbean. I would recommend flying from Jamaica and buying a ticket to Cuba once you get there. Obviously flights to Jamaica are cheap and it is one of the closest countries. It is easier to hide the fact that you have been to Cuba flying from there as opposed to Canada. Americans on vacation to Canada rarely get tanned and have luggage full of warm weather clothes. :)

Goodjob!, the Cubans are very friendly and really love Americans. They hate Bush, of course, but my trips there were always full of warm memories. Hell, even Castro welcomed our group and treated us to a several hour speech about baseball.

Here is a document about OFAC's regulations and you might want to read all about your non-rights to freely travel to Cuba on the OFAC website.
posted by JJ86 at 5:58 AM on May 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

I have a Cuban stamp in my passport and no one has asked about it since then. I am a US citizen.

I did get seriously raked over by customs on my way back though, in Cleveland, but it was probably for lack-of-sleep-dunderheaded-ness.

As far as the "lessening restrictions..." bit - I was really excited to hear that a couple years ago, but then they tightened them instead - reducing the number of legitimate ways to enter (e.g. no "educational" programs from the Smithsonian institution).
posted by whatzit at 6:40 AM on May 4, 2006

I can confirm (like many others) that they don't stamp your passport in Cuba unless you specifically ask for a stamp. I can also confirm that many European countries still stamp passports.

Some people can go legally. My friend goes there and works with churches (underground) but she has a permit from the government as it is considered humanitarian work. She is allowed to take others with her when she goes.
posted by konolia at 4:36 AM PST on May 4 [!]

Evangelism is considered humanitarian work?

posted by sic at 6:42 AM on May 4, 2006

Who says it's evangelism? Churches do more than just evangelise. (Well, the preaching kind of evangelise anyway. You could argue that everything a church does is evangelism - eby their fruits you shall know them and all that)
posted by talitha_kumi at 6:46 AM on May 4, 2006

Count me as another Canadian that didn't get a Cuba stamp on my passport. I was disappointed.

Also, don't forget that credit cards and travellers cheques issued by U.S. banks won't work in Cuba. - angrybeaver

This is important. Canadian credit cards will work, though. For cash, you must buy the Converitble Peso, their special tourist currency. If you go, take some common household things for tipping. Like tylenol and shower curtains. They'll barter with each other for what's useful to them. The embargo does have an effect on how easily average Cubans can get this sort of thing.

I'm not sure why anyone would fly north to Canada to go south to Cuba, when there's a perfectly good Mexico right there. - smackfu

Depending where in the US you live, it might make a lot more sense to go to Canada. Someone from Detroit could just drive to Windsor or TO (muchmuchmuch closer than Mexico) then fly to Cuba.

Americans on vacation to Canada rarely get tanned and have luggage full of warm weather clothes. :) - JJ86

Kinda depends what time of year you go. You do know that Canada gets hot and sunny in the summer, right? We aren't a friggin' polar dessert. The Cubans we spoke with didn't make the Cuban summer sound very pleasant to my ears: mosquitos galore, +40C, and 90% humidity. No thanks for me. YMMV.
posted by raedyn at 7:29 AM on May 4, 2006

My in-laws went a few years ago (and by 'few' I mean, I don't remember. Not more than 10 years). They had to take a stack of small American bills for tipping and such. Maybe this was 9 years ago. The other half is away, or I'd ask him.

They didn't enjoy the visit at all. This surprises me. Perhaps Cuba was too ordinary for their tastes? If you want a negative view, write me. The inlaws are arriving Saturday evening. (they are Belgian, not American)
posted by Goofyy at 8:39 AM on May 4, 2006

It used to be American cash that tourists carried in Cuba. But this changed near the end of 2004. It is still possible to exchange U.S. currency at a CADECA, but there's a 10% penalty "exchange fee". So it's unfavourable to bring American dollars into Cuba because A - you won't be able to spend them anywhere and B - if you tip with them your tips are worth 10% less than face value to the person you're tipping. I'm guessing Goofyy's in-laws went back then USD were recognized tender in Cuba.
posted by raedyn at 9:11 AM on May 4, 2006

I asked the customs guy not to stamp my passport when I was leaving Cuba. He shook his finger at me and stamped it anyway. This has never caused me any problems, but it is there in my (since expired) passport. It doesn't say "Cuba" -- as I recall, it says "banco." Go figure.

Uh... I mean, my friend asked the customs guy not to stamp her passport...
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:44 AM on May 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Well, once if Castro dies, hopefully they'll relax the economic embargo. But I'm afraid of repercussions now, and if I want warmer weather, I'll just go home to Florida.

You do know that Canada gets hot and sunny in the summer, right? We aren't a friggin' polar dessert.

Congratulations, Canada, on saving your national igloo!
posted by oaf at 10:13 AM on May 4, 2006

Not to worry, mate. As mentioned, enter through a third country and BB won't even know.

I was there last in '98 and while there had my passport stolen. Hmmm, do I spend the rest of my life in Cuba, or inflate my cojones and head to the US desk in the Swiss Embassy. I opted for CI and met a very stern old US official who asked if I had a Treasury Department permit. Hmmm. no, I didn't. "Well, son, you're in a lot of trouble" she said with a scowl.

She held that ferocious look for all of 15 seconds, but finally cracked a hint of a smile.

Long story short, she arranged to have my passport issued within three hours. I now carry a US passport that boldly states place of issue as Havana, Cuba.

No worries. I've been in and out of the US a few times since with no problems.
posted by lometogo at 5:33 PM on December 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Can I extend the question and ask how the travel ban affects permanent residents in the US? I'm aware that it's illegal for them to, say, buy a Cuban cigar in a European tobacconist, let alone in Havana, but can one's US residency be revoked for travelling somewhere that's perfectly legal under one's citizenship?
posted by holgate at 9:16 AM on April 19, 2007

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