Last updated February 2022
Here we explain how as an American you can travel to Cuba legally under the present rules for the different US Government OFAC Authorized License Categories.
"Tourist Vacation" vs "Meaningful Visit"
You’ve heard that tourist travel is illegal to Cuba, and that’s true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a visit to Cuba and if you like, book a trip with a responsible travel company like us! You just have to fit your “tourist” travel under a general license so the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the embargo enforcers, know that your time in Cuba has a “meaningful” purpose.
General License for Support for the Cuban People (SCP) (515.574)
This is the best category for tourists taking tours, cruises, or just flying solo. Here is a summary of the 5 requirements:
- Use privately owned businesses (e.g. private restaurants, private shops, private taxis, etc.)
- Stay in privately owned accommodations. Since September 2020 nearly all hotels are prohibited and are featured on this prohibited accommodations list.
- Maintain a full schedule (considered 6-8 hour daily, or 40 hours per week) of meaningful interactions that:
"Enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba"
These activities are similar to what you would do on a P2P tour. Here are some suggestions that industry-wide are considered acceptable:
- Supporting local artists by visiting galleries and/or purchasing art
- Conversing with your hosts at your casa particular
- Taking lessons (dance, language, music, sport, etc)
- Shopping in privately owned businesses
- Eating at privately owned restaurants
- Taking guided cultural/historical tours
- Avoid transactions with Cuban Government entities on this Prohibited List. For tourists the most important entities to avoid are the hotels and shops listed. For example, the two newest 5-star hotels in Old Havana (Manzana Kempinski and The Packard) are prohibited
- Document your activities and transactions in a ledger or travel journal and maintain the records and receipts for 5 years
With SCP you are not required to be on a tour, but it is highly recommended because time spent with our local tour guides counts towards “meaningful interaction” and “promoting independence”. A guide will help you engage more with the culture and people and avoid the hassles and frustrations that independent travelers face. Cuba is safe, but by no means easy. Besides, even our customers who insist they “not-a-tour-person” say our tours are really fun!
That’s it! Do all this and you’re traveling legally to Cuba. While having a signed paper affidavit is not a requirement, we recommend you bring one just in case, because airlines agents and border agents who aren’t experienced in Cuba travel may ask to see one. If you are on one of our tours we will provide you with an affidavit, otherwise if your travel provider (airlines, cruise company, etc) hasn’t given you one, you can just Google “Cuba Travel Affidavit” and download one.
Don’t expect any problems leaving or returning to the U.S. very few people are ever questioned about their trip to Cuba or their general license. If these rules start being enforced it will be done by the Office of Foreign Assets Control after you are back home, not by Customs and Border Patrol. The punishment for violation, which hasn’t been levied in many years, is a fine. You will not be prohibited from entering the US, put in jail, or have your passport revoked.
General License for People to People (P2P) (515.565 b)
This category is a subset of the general license for Educational Activities (515.565) to allow for non-academic educational travel. People to People (515.565b) is eliminated as of June 5, 2019. If you were planning to travel under this category, and made at least one transaction (e.g. booked hotel or flight), you can still travel under P2P and make the rest of the purchases necessary to complete your trip.
Legal Cuba Travel for Cruise Passengers
As of June 5, 2019 cruise travel is no longer be permitted. If you are booked on a cruise already, please contact your cruise company to find out if the cruise is still scheduled. Any persons already booked for cruise travel will legally be able to keep their plans, but the cruise companies may want to cancel. If you are a cruise passenger, you should travel under SCP, which all cruise companies allow. You would just select 515.574 Support for Cuban People on the affidavit they provide you. We have had travelers from Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Holland, and Norwegian on our Havana day tours they all have the same process so it’s likely all other cruise lines do it the same way.
The Legal Travel Options We Offer
Cuban Adventures USA offers several options for legal travel to Cuba:
- SCP tours – These group tours are specially designed for compliance with the Support for the Cuban People category of General License. They use privately owned accommodations and restaurants, and include a full schedule of fun and diverse activities that are appropriate under this license. These tours also include document support to comply with the license, upgraded accommodations, our most experienced Cuban guides, gratuities, and many meals. Our SCP tours help you avoid the hassle and uncertainty of designing your own compliant itinerary and provide you with a fun and authentic Cuba travel experience.
- Custom Tours - We offer private and custom tours that meet the requirements for SCP. For these tours you can decide the date and itinerary. Contact us for a quote.
- Other Tours & Services - For travelers who prefer to decide their own activities, we offer basic group tours that include accommodations, guide, and transportation. The accommodations comply with legal travel, however the meals and activities are not included, so you need to pay for these locally. You are responsible for choosing only restaurants and activities that comply with the travel regulations. Our guides and staff on these basic group tours do not provide additional support during the tour to help you complete the paperwork for the license. If you prefer to stay just around Havana we also offer tour guide services and day tours. All of the tours and services we offer are appropriate for SCP - since they support privately owned business – but make sure the rest of your time complies with the regulations and that you complete the necessary paperwork.
How to Travel with a General License
SCP is the best category for general tourists, but if you have a special purpose for being in Cuba one of the other 12 categories may be best for you. Many people think educational is an easy category to comply with but it is actually quite restrictive, so make sure you understand the requirements of the license you select.
Which ever category you choose, you must not have transactions with any of these prohibited entities.
Remember, for a general license you DO NOT submit an application to a government agency. You will not have a permit or paper license, it’s self-certification and here is how to do it:
Step 1: Pick Your Category
Here are most of the categories of legal Cuba travel for the general license, ordered from most used to least used. For full description of the categories visit the OFAC website.
- Support for the Cuban people by human rights organizations, independent organizations, individuals, and NGOs. This is the category that allows individuals to travel legally, as long as they use private businesses and maintain a full schedule of meaningful activities (§515.574). See previous section for this category.
- Educational activities. Section (a) is for college, university and secondary school faculty, staff, students, and chaperones. Academic research specifically relating to Cuba and for the purpose of a graduate or undergraduate degree. Faculty and staff can visit Cuba independently to research and prepare for student trips. Note: This generally requires a formal course of study, so just taking Spanish lessons wouldn't qualify. Section (b) is for non-academic people to people travel on chaperoned group tours (§515.565). Subcategory (b) People to People is eliminated as of June 5, 2019.
- Religious organizations, and their members and staff who are engaging in a full-schedule of religious activities (§515.566)
- Professional research or attending professional meetings directly relating to the traveler’s profession, professional background, or area of expertise. Professional research can include making a documentary film. (§515.564)
- Journalistic activities for journalists who are employed by news reporting organizations or supporting broadcast or technical personnel or freelance journalist with a record of previous experience who is working on a journalistic project. ( §515.563)
- Visiting a relative or family member in Cuba, or the relative of someone you live with as family, or accompanying a close family member that is traveling under §515.562 (official government business), §515.563 (journalistic activity), §515.564(a) (professional research), §515.565(a)(1) through (4) and (6) (educational activities), §515.566 (religious activities), §515.575 (humanitarian projects), or §515.576 (activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes) (§515.561)
- Humanitarian projects such as medical or health related projects, construction projects, environmental projects, formal or non-formal educational training, etc. (§515.575)
- Participation in public performances, clinics, workshops, exhibitions, and athletic and other competitions. (§515.567)
- Business visits for exportation and importation of telecommunications and internet hardware and services, and exportation of agricultural products. (§515.545)
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes. (§ 515.576)
- Official business of government employees and organizations (§515.562)
Step 2: Create Your License
Your “license” is just your statement of which category you are traveling under. If you are on one of our multi-day group tours we will provide you with an affidavit. If not, use an affidavit that your airline, visa service, or tour company provides, pull one from online, or just create a letter with the following information:
- Dates of travel
- High level purpose of travel
- Specific category of general license (use the code citation)
- Signature and date
Each individual in your party (even children!) must qualify for a general license on their own.
Step 3: Document Your Travel
OFAC requires that you maintain specific records of your travel to Cuba, regardless of whether you are traveling under a license or not, and to keep these records for 5 years in the (highly unlikely!) event that OFAC requests to see them. Hang on to any receipts and documents relating to transactions or purchases for your trip to Cuba, along with any itineraries and other support for your purpose for travel.
Step 4: Return to the US
You don't need to worry about showing your license anywhere except the US when returning from your trip. Other countries aren't in the practice of enforcing the US travel embargo, so don't expect anyone in Cuba, Mexico, Canada, etc. to have any idea of what you're talking about if you mention the license. You only need to show your license if an official asks to see it. At present the level of interrogation of travelers arriving from Cuba appears to be quite low. Most travelers are either not asked any questions, or are waived through after stating their reason of travel. Check our travelers comments on their experience arriving back to the U.S.. Nevertheless Trump has told OFAC to start enforcing these regulations so make sure you have these documents in your files for 5 years. If you received a passport stamp in Cuba, don't worry- you are traveling legally!
Check out the OFAC website for more information.
Traveling on an individual General License? Our regular groups tours offer plenty of freedom for you to pursue your general license activities while providing a foundation for a hassle-free travel. Whether you travel independently or on one of our other tours we can provide flights to Cuba, transportation, accommodations, tour guide services, Santiago day tours, and Havana day tours, to make your trip to Cuba easier and more enjoyable.