CAN US CITIZENS TRAVEL TO CUBA LEGALLY?
Updated Version: June 2019
Travel to Cuba from the US has been complicated and for many decades Cuba has been a “forbidden fruit”, so close to the USA and yet so difficult to reach. Regulations seemed to disappear under Obama but the US Embargo is still very much in place. Any US Citizen wishing to travel to Cuba should be fully aware of current legislation before committing to any trip to Cuba.
Travel to Cuba for US Citizens has been restricted since 1961 by the United States embargo against Cuba, and any travel to Cuba by US citizens for “touristic” purposes has been forbidden ever since. During the Obama Presidency, some of this legislation was loosened and many people mistakenly believed that the Embargo on Cuba had been lifted.
Diplomatic ties between the 2 countries were restored under Obama’s presidency on 17th December 2014, but economic sanctions remained. Certain restrictions were loosened so that US citizens were able to travel to Cuba with relative freedom, so long as they adhered to one of the 12 legal forms of permitted travel to Cuba. Airlines started flying directly from US cities to Cuban cities and, for a brief moment, it seemed as if the draconian US Embargo on Cuba would soon become a thing of the past.
Donald Trump’s election as President of the USA has dramatically halted the continued improvement of the United States’ relationship with Cuba and on 8th November 2017, President Trump unveiled a directive cancelling portions of Obama’s 2016 détente with Cuba – Trump’s way of making good on a campaign promise to “reverse” all of Obama’s free trade and tourism policy initiatives and enforce the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Further restrictions in June 2019 have removed one of the legal forms of permitted travel to Cuba – the people-to-people category has now been completely removed for both individual and group travel.
In addition to sparking much concern regarding U.S. – Cuba ties, and plenty of outrage among Cuban officials, the order has raised questions among American would-be travellers to the island nation. You can read the fully updated Treasury regulations by following this link.
FAQS FOR US CITIZENS PLANNING A TRIP TO CUBA
CAN US CITIZENS TRAVEL TO CUBA AT ALL?
Yes. Although travel to Cuba for ‘tourism’ is not permitted under current US government regulations, US citizens can travel to Cuba so long as they comply with the requirements of one of 11 categories for which the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) has granted a general license.
SO HOW CAN I TRAVEL TO CUBA?
OFAC has issued a general license for each of 11 categories of authorised travel (see list below). Individuals who comply with the conditions of the general license do not need to apply for an additional license from OFAC to travel to Cuba.
A directive issued by President Trump in November 2017 made changes to the categories which existed previously. This included eliminating the possibility of individual ‘People-to-People’ travel from the educational activities category and introducing a new category called ‘Support for the Cuban People’. June 2019 saw further restrictions and group travel using People-to-People category has now been eliminated.
CATEGORIES OF AUTHORISED TRAVEL TO CUBA
The 11 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are now (see also the US Embassy in Havana’s website): “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 informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions.”
Many individual and group travellers to Cuba will now seek to comply with the ‘Support for the Cuban People’ general license. To see information about compliance under ‘Support for the Cuban People’ in particular together with some helpful examples, please refer to §515.574 of the Code of Federal Regulations here.
There is more information about travelling to Cuba on the US Treasury’s website here (FAQs related to Cuba, Section II).
CAN I BOOK A FLIGHT OR CRUISE TO CUBA?
Yes, you can book a flight as long as your itinerary complies with one of the 11 categories of authorized travel. Airlines such as JetBlue and Delta provide a service to Cuba while remaining in compliance with the new policies, and both commercial flights will still be permitted to travel to the island.
As of 5th June 2019, it is no longer possible to book a cruise to Cuba.
WHAT IF I AM NOT AN AMERICAN CITIZEN BUT AM THINKING OF TRAVELLING TO CUBA VIA THE US?
If you are not an American citizen but are intending to travel to Cuba via the US you will be subject to compliance under the same regulations as an American citizen. You cannot use a visa (Tourist Card) purchased outside the US but have to buy a ‘pink’ Tourist Card sold only in the US at a US airport or from a US travel agent.
The changes introduced by President Trump in November 2017 and June 2019 do not prohibit travel to Cuba for US citizens, it just means that travellers need to ensure that their proposed trip itinerary complies with one of the 11 categories covered by a general license. It is really a return to the way things were before Obama loosened US sanctions against Cuba in 2016.
US citizens can obviously still choose to travel at their own risk, flying to Cuba through a third country or joining an unlicensed tour operator.