Cuban boy performs cartwheel on Varadero beach.
Updated Mon 26 Oct 2020

Cubans welcome US visitors into their hearts and homes

American legal Cuba travel explained

Since 1997, we’ve distilled ever-changing, often mind-boggling US-Cuba travel regulations. From Cuba travel openings by presidents Clinton and Obama to rigid rules under G.W. Bush and brutal clampdowns by Trump, we’ve kept Americans abreast. As global citizens, we work for a brighter future when travel between Cuba and the United States is unfettered.

Cuba travel hasn’t ended – Americans can still visit legally

People-to-people travel, enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of Americans during president Obama’s tenure, was part of an initiative to normalize relations with Cuba and enable citizen-to-citizen dialogue, understanding, and people’s diplomacy. It worked.

Since 2017, Trump has eliminated people-to-people travel, and made attendance at professional meetings and participation in public events nearly impossible. He also ended cruise ship visits and banned stays in most Cuban hotels. All other categories of Cuba travel remain unchanged.

Trump’s cruel actions have resulted in untold suffering and hardship for regular Cubans.

Guidance for how Americans can travel to Cuba legally

Many meaningful Cuba travel options are available for Americans to visit the island legally. The longstanding twelve categories of authorized Cuba travel are intact.

Academic travel to Cuba has not changed. Students, teachers, school staff, and chaperones can come to Cuba just like study abroad to Canada, Asia, or Europe.

AfroCuban school boy in Havana.
Black Lives Matter in Cuba

The popular categories of Support for the Cuban People, Humanitarian Projects, Religious Activities, Professional Research, and Journalism, are wonderful ways to witness Cuba, engage with its people while partaking in their culture.

If you ever dreamed of visiting Cuba, do it now! Cubans are eager to host American guests. Indeed, there is no better time to visit. It’s a nation of fun-loving, open-minded people living in an unspoiled natural environment, with very few tourists. You’ll be special during your stay.

History of US travel restrictions since Cuba’s 1959 Revolution

President Kennedy first imposed Cuba travel restrictions in 1963. Every president since has maintained, or adjusted Cuba travel rules. President Jimmy Carter significantly eased Cuba travel regulations in 1977. George W. Bush reversed Carter’s reforms in 2004, condemning peaceful Cuba as “beyond the Axis of Evil” with Libya and Syria! During Barack Obama’s terms, easy Cuba travel became the norm. Trump, branded Cuba as a leg in a “Troika of Tyranny” together with Venezuela and Nicaragua, severely curtailing Cuba travel. Trump’s objective is to wreck Cuba’s economy and cause mass starvation.

No president has been able to end Cuba travel. Fortunately, the US Constitution enshrines freedom to travel, however manacled by Executive Branch whims.

What is legal Cuba travel, how does it work, who is in charge?

Bronze logo medallion of US Department of Treasury.
US Cuba sanctions official website

The US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) enforces Cuba travel regulations. OFAC allows for twelve themes under which Americans can legally visit Cuba without any government documentation or permission in advance. The twelve categories are known as “general license” travel.

There is no actual license or paper issued. It is an honor system. If the purpose of your Cuba travel falls under any of the twelve pre-approved Cuba travel categories, you can hop on a plane and visit Cuba. It’s that simple.

What are the 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba?

Office of Foreign Assets Control Cuba travel restrictions booklet.
PDF of OFAC Cuba travel restrictions
  • Support for the Cuban People (the most popular category for American guests)
  • Educational Activities (study abroad for students, teachers, and school staff)
  • Professional Research. (Professional Meetings attendance now requires special permission in advance of travel.)
  • Public Performances, Clinics, Workshops, Athletic and other competitions, and Exhibitions. (This category now requires special permission in advance of travel.)
  • Journalistic Activity (for electronic and print media reporters)
  • Humanitarian Projects
  • Religious Activities
  • Family Visits (connecting with close relatives in Cuba)
  • Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  • Certain authorized export transactions (for businesses and NGOs)
  • Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations

Golden rules for legal Cuba travel – so you don’t get in trouble

Sad and worried young man.
Banned by Trump: Cuban hotel list
  • While in Cuba, your activities must focus on full-time engagement in the theme of the category of travel you choose.
  • Purely touristic travel such as sunning on Cuba’s sugary white sand beaches, swimming in its crystal clear warm waters, and lounging about all day sipping mojitos, is strictly forbidden.
  • Don’t stay in Cuban hotels banned by Trump. Click worried boy for the list.
  • Trump made Cuban rum and Cuban cigars illegal in the United States. You can only enjoy them while in Cuba.

What are the simplest and best ways to visit Cuba legally?

On your own. Cuba is an ideal destination for sojourners with foreign travel under their belt and ample planning time. If you speak fluent Spanish, independent travel is tops.

Design your own custom private Cuba trip in collaboration with a legitimate tour operator. If you, your family, and friends, prioritize time, ease, certainty, and economy, working with a Cuba travel agent or tour operator will ensure unrivaled rewards. Cuba travel professionals provide the best cultural experiences, entertainment options, meals, accommodations, transportation, and health-conscious guides.

Prepaid small group Cuba travel packages guarantee your Cuba trip conforms to US legal requirements. Small group tours, hosted by US agencies, are nearly all-inclusive, incredibly economical, and offer tons of cultural encounters in a brief period – many more than the most inveterate independent traveler could assemble.

How do I choose a legitimate Cuba agent or tour operator?

Learn about the secret lives of Cuban pygmy owls.
Cuban pygmy owl, our logo & mascot

We encourage potential Cuba visitors to browse the internet to shop and compare options. It’s fun and enlightening. You’ll find lots of travel agencies and tour operators with decades of professionalism, offering excellent services with a broad range of prices. Locate them on Google by searching “cuba tours for americans” or “cuba trips for americans”.

  • Ensure the tour operator is based in the United States and licensed to provide travel services to Americans.
  • The tour operator must issue a Certificate of Legal Cuba Travel, guaranteeing your trip conforms to current US Cuba travel regulations.
  • Travel companies come and go. Ask how long the travel provider has been in business. Don’t risk your precious travel dollars with fly by night operators.
  • Learn from the experiences of fellow travelers. Read tour operator’s TripAdvisor Forum reviews.
  • Ask your friends who’ve traveled to Cuba for their suggestions and recommendations.

Legal Cuba travel essentials for US citizens and residents

  • American visitors to Cuba require a valid passport.
  • Cuba visitors require an entry visa. Purchase a Cuban Tourist Visa here.
  • US credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba. Plan trip expenses carefully. See Cash requirements and guidelines while in Cuba.  
  • US regulations require Americans to retain records of island activities and related expenses for five years.
  • Check out the Ultimate Cuba Travel Guide. A compilation of more than two decades of Cuba travel advice.

Have questions about legal Cuba travel? We’re here for you.

Call us at 1-888-965-5647 toll free. Email us. Or chat with us online.