Thrilled beyond belief to be heading to Cuba in T-minus 34 days, I’ve been sharing the news with just about everyone I talk to. More often than not, I get the same reaction: “Oh, right, Americans can now travel there without any restrictions!” While it is true that U.S.-Cuba relations are changing rapidly these days, it is a misconception that Cuba is completely open to American tourists now. So, what is the deal currently? Can all U.S. citizens travel to Cuba? And how can Americans get there? After months of researching this trip, I have your answers!
Disclaimer: I am not a legal authority on any of the topics discussed and am merely providing my interpretation of various government-issued documents around the internet. Please do not use this information as absolute legal advice.
What were the travel restrictions for Americans before the recent changes?
Tensions have been high between the United States and Cuba for decades, reaching their peak during the Cold War. In the early 1960s, American exports to Cuba were banned, the U.S. embassy in Havana was closed, and diplomatic relations were severed. President John F. Kennedy imposed restrictions against U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba in early 1963. In 1977, these restrictions lapsed when President Jimmy Carter neglected to renew them, and American travel to Cuba has not explicitly been forbidden since then; it has simply been illegal for U.S. citizens to make any financial transactions in Cuba, making travel there effectively impossible under the law:
Regulation does not limit travel of U.S. citizens to Cuba per se, but it makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to have transactions (spend money or receive gifts) in Cuba, under most circumstances. The regulations require that persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction be licensed in order to engage in any travel-related transactions pursuant to travel to, from, and within Cuba. Transactions related solely to tourist travel are not licensable.
–U.S. Department of State
Through the years, Americans have circumvented these restrictions by traveling through another country (often Mexico or Canada) without getting their passport stamped. Most do get away with it, but prosecution and fines have always been a possibility. However, in 2015, diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba have been renewed, and travel restrictions have been modified.
Who can travel to Cuba as of 2015?
The general ban on American travel to Cuba is still in effect. Licenses previously allowed certain categories of tourists to travel to Cuba, although these licenses were still fairly strict and difficult to obtain. However, in September 2015, the Commerce and Treasury Departments amended the existing license exceptions and increased the number available. While American travel to Cuba is still restricted, it is much looser than it was previously.
Many of the previously “specific” licenses, which required applications and were determined case by case, have been shifted into the category of “general” licenses. General licenses are self-authorized and do not require any formal approval or proof of activity. The following are the 12 currently authorized general licensed travel categories:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances
- Clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain authorized export transactions
Travel agency Cuba Travel Services has further details on each of these categories and who classifies here.
Does travel blogging count as “journalistic activity” for general license purposes?
Per the current regulations, if the traveler is not employed by a news organization, he or she may still travel as “a freelance journalist with a record of previous journalistic experience working on a freelance journalistic project.”
If you consider your blog a “freelance journalistic project,” then you should be able to travel under the journalistic activities license, provided your “schedule of activities does not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule.” Also note that “an entire group does not qualify for the general license…merely because some members of the group qualify individually.”
Can I fly directly from the U.S. to Cuba?
Yes! Gone are the days of having to travel via Mexico or Canada to avoid a passport stamp. Direct charter flights now fly directly from many major U.S. cities – including New York City, Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and, as of December 12th, 2015, Los Angeles.
However, you will find that most travel booking websites still do not allow you to purchase – or even search for – flights directly from the U.S. to Cuba. You also will not be able to book directly through the airline. Instead, you will need to purchase your flight through sanctioned travel agencies that can arrange a charter flight for you. These agencies book flights to the following cities:
- ABC Charters: Miami and Tampa
- Airline Brokers Co: Miami
- Cuba Travel Services: Miami, Los Angeles, New York, and Tampa
- Island Travel & Tours: Orlando and Miami
- Marazul: Miami
- Xael Charters, Inc: Miami and Fort Lauderdale
A few useful links
- U.S. Department of the Treasury Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba (updated September 18th, 2015)
- What New Rules Mean for Travel to Cuba, New York Times (September 21st, 2015)
- Cuba Travel Advice, Australia’s smarttraveller.gov.au
- Lonely Planet’s guide to Cuba
With U.S.-Cuba relations evolving as quickly as they have in recent years, I would not be surprised to find these restrictions loosening even further in the coming months and years. News and information on rules for traveling to Cuba are still relatively difficult to keep track of, but hopefully this guide has proved useful to any Americans considering a trip to Cuba. If you have any questions or revisions, don’t hesitate to reach out by commenting below or contacting me. ¡Buen viaje!