Want to travel to Cuba? Now is the time! At the end of the month, JetBlue will make history with the first non-charter direct commercial flights from the US to Cuba in almost 50 years. But before you go, here are 5 things you need to know about Cuba’s passport requirements, Cuban travel visas and how to travel to Cuba legally as an American citizen.

Passport Requirements For Americans Traveling to Cuba

In a nutshell, you’ll need:

  • A valid passport
  • 2 blank pages in the back

According to the Department of State, Cuba does not have a six-month rule. Your passport just needs to be valid for the duration of your trip. That said, if you travel often, make sure you have at least two blank pages in the back so that you can have your passport stamped if needed.

Also, tour providers and airlines may have more stringent requirements. For example, some airlines, like Delta, and cruise lines require you to have six months of validity remaining on your passport. Therefore, you must check with your with your transportation provider prior to traveling.

What About Passport Cards?

Passport cards are small, wallet-sized passports that are used for land and sea travel to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. Their smaller size makes them more convenient to carry around than a traditional passport book, and they’re cheaper, too.

Just don’t try to use a passport card to get to Cuba. You won’t get in; not even for a cruise. Due to the embargo, Cuba plays by different rules than the rest of the Caribbean. You’ll need a full-size passport.

Cuban Travel Visas

Will you need a visa to travel to Cuba?

Yes. And depending on why you’re traveling and how you’re getting there, you may need to apply for one in advance. If you’re taking a commercial flight, check with your airline. You may be able to purchase a tourist card at the airport. The price depends on the airline: Delta says it will cost $20, while JetBlue says it will cost $50.

Regardless, the State Department advises American travelers to contact the Cuban Embassy before your trip to make sure you have everything you need.

If you are a US citizen born in Cuba, Cuba may not recognize your US citizenship, and you may need a Cuban passport and/or a special visa to enter the country. You will still need a US passport to enter and leave the US, however.

Cuba Travel Licenses: Or, How to Travel to Cuba Without Getting Fined26384734590_a70269a1be

The US government has made it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, but the trade embargo remains in effect. Technically, tourist travel remains off the table.

To be legal, your visit must have a higher purpose than mere recreation. Basically, the government doesn’t want you to relax too much or have too much fun.

You might be able to squeeze in some beach time, but the majority of your trip must be dedicated to one of the 12 following travel categories:

• Visiting relatives
• Humanitarian projects or to provide support to the Cuban people
• Official government business
• Journalistic activities
• Professional research
• School or university-based academic activities
• “People-to-people” educational travel. This is the most common reason for the average American without Cuban relatives to travel to Cuba.
• Religious activities.
• Events like performances, competitions and exhibitions
• Authorization to provide travel services, carrier services and remittance forwarding services
• On an assignment for a private foundation, research or educational institute
• Visiting to export, import, or transmit information or information materials.
The good news? As long as your trip falls under one of these exceptions, you can legally visit without applying for a license from the US government ahead of time.

Should You Travel to Cuba with a Tour Group?

You can also arrange your own trip. But, to stay on the right side of the law, you must create a full-time schedule of activities that promote “meaningful interaction” between you, your fellow travelers and Cuban people.

You can self-certify that your trip falls into one of these categories when you go through Customs. If you’re flying direct, your airline may also require written certification to get on board. Since there isn’t a specific form to fill out, check with your airline to see what is required.

Don’t forget to save all of your receipts for the next 5 years! It’s unlikely to happen, but if the US Treasury wants proof that your trip was for a valid reason, you’ll need them.

Want to make sure you’re covered? Join a group tour with a schedule of appropriate activities already planned out. While you won’t get to soak in the sun all day, you can still have an amazing experience. “People-to-people” tours can focus on a variety of interests, including food and cooking, art, music and salsa dancing. Here are a few of the top tour operators to get you started.28402338926_2d20229215_b

  • InsightCuba is the most experienced Cuban tour company. They’ve been in business since 2000, so they know Cuba inside and out. Current offerings include tours focused on Cuban culture, Cuban history and Cuban jazz, as well as some cruises.
  • Cultural Cuba focuses on small group tours. They offer pre-scheduled tours to immerse you in Cuban art, culture and history, as well as private tours planned according to your interests.
  • National Geographic Expeditions‘ Cuban cultural tours are accompanied by a National Geographic expert to provide unique insights. The list of experts includes authors, archaeologists, naturalists and filmmakers.

Passport Requirements for Cuban Cruises

Cruising to Cuba? It’s always a good idea to have a passport on a cruise. But Americans are used to “closed-loop” Caribbean cruises where you have the option of sailing with just a driver’s license and a birth certificate.

Once again, that does not apply to Cuba. You’ll need a valid US passport book, and possibly a visa as well. You’ll also have to adhere to a full schedule of educational “people-to-people” shore excursions to qualify to travel to Cuba. Check with your cruise line for details!

Note: Per the New York Times, as of June 5, 2019, “Cruise lines Royal Caribbean and Norwegian said on Wednesday that they will no longer sail to Cuba, joining Carnival Corporation, which announced earlier in the day that it will no longer operate cruises to the island, effective immediately.” If you have plans to travel to Cuba by cruise ship, check your reservation, check with the U.S. State Department, and check with the Cuban embassy on updated rules.

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Photo credits:  Some rights reserved by Lex Kravetski Some rights reserved by bud ellison – from the street