Nearly half-a-million travelers now go from the United States to Cuba every year, making the once-forbidden island, if not familiar, at least far less isolated from its U.S. neighbors than it used to be. But who gets to go and how do they get there?
Wading through the licensing requirements from the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees the trade embargo that has kept Cuba more or less off-limits since the early 1960s, reveals that not all U.S. visitors are created equal.
Depending on who you are, Cuba can be as open as any other Caribbean island — or it can be a restricted destination that could cost you thousands of dollars in federal government fines. Here is a quick rundown on how U.S. travelers get to Cuba, presented in order from the least restrictive options to the most.
Revisit your family tree
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Americans with a “close relative” in Cuba are free to come and go as often as they wish and do not need to ask in advance for a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, which enforces the embargo. They travel instead under a general license and are not subject to the $188-a-day spending cap and the limited travel itineraries that other U.S. citizens face in Cuba. The definition of close relative is broad: OFAC defines it as “any individual related to a person by blood, marriage or adoption who is no more than three generations removed from that person or from a common ancestor with that person.” So even if you aren’t Cuban but one of your spouse’s grandparents is, you may qualify.
Pray on it
People who work with churches or religious groups on the island can travel under a general license as well, but only if they have the necessary proof that their trip is not tourism. That means travelers with church groups who are flying from the United States must carry with them (and give their travel providers a copy of) a letter confirming they are members or staff members of the organization and are traveling under its auspices to engage in religious activities in Cuba. Carrying an itinerary proving that is also a good idea. Spending limits still apply, and religious travel requires a religious visa from Cuba, too. Many companies, like Marazul in Miami, offer to help obtain one.
Take a look at your résumé
Travelers doing professional work or research also qualify for a general license, but that, too, requires some paperwork and comes with limitations. Academics doing research in Cuba, for example, are generally expected to have (and to show to travel providers or U.S. Customs officials, if they ask upon return) a copy of their CV, published research relevant to what they’re studying in Cuba, and an itinerary of whom they are going to meet, or have met, with locations and times. Academic research must also be “noncommercial.” In other words, don’t go with the idea of starting a business working with Cuban cancer researchers.
Journalists, whether traveling with or without an official press visa from the Cuban government, get off a little easier. They are generally expected to carry published articles, a business card or a press pass if they are on the staff of a major media organization, and/or — in the case of freelancers — a letter from an editor asserting the journalist is on assignment.
If you’re a doctor or other professional attending a conference, make sure it is one held by an “international professional organization, institution or association.” The gatherings cannot be hosted by the Cuban government or by a U.S. organization.
Go back to school
Several U.S. universities now offer their students programs that include either short trips to Cuba or a semester abroad at Cuban universities. Some of the programs are limited to enrolled students or small numbers of students — Burlington College has a license for 15 students to study at the University of Havana — but open-enrollment programs for studying Spanish in Cuba are also expanding. Spanish Studies Abroad, an independent language institute, recently received an OFAC license that would allow U.S. students to receive college credit for learning Spanish in Cuba, although it requires some extra homework. To ensure that they do not go beyond lawful spending limits, students must retain records related to all travel transactions on the island for five years.
Try visiting people
“People to people” tours are the way to go for everyone who does not have family on the island or a specific job to do in Cuba. To be legal, the trips must be educational in nature, with a focus on interaction with everyday Cubans as opposed to the government. The groups that put the tours together will have received approval from the Treasury Department only after filing reams of paperwork explaining the reasoning behind their itineraries, but for interested travelers, the barriers to entry are low. Those eager to get to Cuba just have to pay and agree to take part in a busy, highly organized tour with very little free time.
This is not a method that we recommend. Hundreds of Americans — maybe thousands — go to Cuba every year by flying through a third country, usually the Bahamas, Mexico or Canada. Cuban immigration officials, eager to welcome visitors and their dollars, rarely if ever stamp U.S. passports, so it is possible to have an unrestricted visit.
But it’s not a wise idea. While traveling to Cuba is not itself illegal, the moment you buy your first drink, you’ve broken the law. Paying for anything at all means that you’ve violated the embargo and risk fines of up to $250,000. And if you lie to U.S. Customs officials to hide your trip to Cuba upon re-entry, you will be violating a whole different set of federal laws that have nothing to do with the embargo.
Tourists are rarely penalized for violating the embargo — the Obama administration has focused its enforcement efforts on businesses — but those bold or dumb enough to try to smuggle home a few Cuban cigars shouldn’t expect to get away without a hassle and some serious legal bills.