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Yes, it’s legal! Travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer and can’t offer legal advice.

When I’m not leading my own tours, I sometimes lead tours for larger tour companies. This year, I’ll be taking groups to Cuba. (Update, August 2014: The Treasury Department has licensed my company, Detour Travel, to organize my own People-to-People trips to Cuba! For more information, check out my Cuba page.)


A mural at Casa de la Cultura in Baracoa

A mural at Casa de la Cultura in Baracoa

A lot of people think that for a U.S. citizen to visit Cuba, you have to do it illegally. And people do that all the time, sneaking to Cuba through Mexico, Canada, or some other non-U.S. entry point. Cuban officials are so used to it, they routinely don’t stamp U.S. passports, knowing that many American visitors don’t want a paper trail.

But in fact, there are exceptions to the blanket restriction on financial transactions with Cuba – if your travel aligns with U.S. foreign policy goals. Enter the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. OFAC authorizes travel to Cuba in two ways: through general and specific licenses.

The view from Paladar el Caribeño, a rooftop restaurant in Santiago de Cuba

The view from Paladar el Caribeño, a rooftop restaurant in Santiago de Cuba

General licenses

Depending on the reason for your trip, you may be automatically authorized to visit Cuba. This is known as travel under a general license. If your travel falls into one of the eight categories of general license, you can just go, no questions asked.

For example, anyone can go visit a close relative who’s a Cuban national, or who’s working for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. You don’t need to tell OFAC you’re going or get specific approval for your trip. You’re automatically covered under a general license.

Other examples of travel under a general license include journalism, research, and certain religious activities, conducted by professionals affiliated with established news/research/religious organizations. Some kinds of commerce may also be conducted under a general license.

Cuba is famous for maintaining cars imported prior to the U.S. embargo, like this taxi.

Cuba is famous for maintaining cars imported prior to the U.S. embargo, like this taxi in Santiago de Cuba.

Specific licenses

Beyond the eight types of travel that qualify for a general license, there are fifteen others that require a specific license. Such travel may be authorized under U.S. policy, but the process isn’t automatic. You have to file an application with OFAC and get their explicit approval before going.

When I lead groups to Cuba, we travel under a specific license for “people-to-people” educational exchanges. This requires a full schedule of activities that bring our group together with Cuban nationals for meaningful encounters. Part of my job is to facilitate these interactions, helping to build mutual understanding between gringos and Cubans. For me, these encounters are a more interesting way to explore Cuba than just lying on a beach and sipping mojitos.

Other examples of travel under a specific license include freelance journalism, humanitarian projects, or participation in public performances or competitions.

Want to go?
If you’re interested in visiting Cuba legally, you have a few options. You can find a licensed travel provider, like a tour company or religious organization with a specific license from OFAC. You can apply for your own specific license and go on your own. Or, if your trip fits one of the eight magic categories, you can travel under a general license.

Me in a coco taxi - Havana, January 2013

Me in a coco taxi – Havana, January 2013

Whichever option you choose, be careful about it. Make sure you understand your license. Carry relevant documentation with you as you travel, and keep it in your permanent records afterwards, in case you ever need to demonstrate the trip was legit.

For more information, visit OFAC’s Cuba page, which includes their official guidelines on travel to Cuba.

And again, I’m no lawyer, so don’t rely on my say-so. Get familiar with the process yourself or get help from a qualified expert.

About the Author

2 Comments

  1. Hola, Matt!

    You and I met at the Organoponico farm in Alamar while in Cuba. I’d love to stay in touch with you!

    xoxo,

    Trish Oliveira

  2. Dear Person, I’m a US citizen and I’m interested to go on a legal tour to Santiago de Cuba among other places, please advise me of dates and cost, thanks.

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