Can Americans Travel to Cuba?
If you haven't been living under a rock, you've probably heard about President Obama's historic restoration of full diplomatic relations between the Unites States and Cuba after more than half a century of tension. The stalemate, a vestige of the Cold War, placed a lot of strain on Cuba in particular, which is just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The Cuban government estimates the embargo has cost the country $1.126 trillion over its life. It has absolutely decimated the country, but at the same time the utter lack of resources is what makes Cuba so unique today--it's like it has been preserved in time, abandoned in the 1950s and suddenly unfrozen in the 21st century. It's also why Cuba has become such a hotspot for travelers. So what's the deal? Can Americans actually get in on the fun and take a trip to Cuba?
It's certainly been a confusing process. As I was preparing for my trip, and especially after taking it, I've gotten a lot of questions from friends on how they can get there. The answer is: it's complicated. Technically Americans have always been able to travel to Cuba for very specific reasons, namely for humanitarian reasons, to study, and for family. I went as a study abroad student and was actually planning the trip before Obama's announcement. It was a program my school had been running for years. Post-relations thaw, those categories have expanded to a total of twelve:
- Family visits
- Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic or other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities or private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importations, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain authorized export transactions
Now this list seems fairly specific and you may notice tourism is not included. This is because tourism is still technically prohibited; however, it's fairly easy to find an activity that would allow you to qualify. For example, one may consider volunteering in Cuba, which would likely be considered either a "humanitarian project" or "support for the Cuban people." The Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for these twelve categories. If your trip meets all criteria of the license, no further action is needed and you may travel to Cuba. If not, you will need to apply for a specific case-by-case visa with OFAC.
When I traveled to Cuba in the summer of 2015 the rules had not yet changed and there were no direct flights from the US to Cuba. It took a significant amount of finesse to get to Havana, including flying to Miami and switching over to a chartered flight that took us the remaining 228 miles. Now, as long as you qualify for a general license, you can purchase a ticket from an airline and fly directly to Cuba, which drastically reduces the cost.
So in summary, yes Americans can now travel to Cuba, albeit with restrictions. One must meet the criteria of one of the general licenses, which do not include tourism. If not, a visa must be granted on a case-by-case basis. This is mostly a matter of formality and diplomacy. Overall things have improved drastically. Visit the State Department's website for full details if you're thinking about planning a trip, and let me know if you have any questions!