Despite being a major travel attraction for Canadians and Europeans in recent decades, Cuba is relatively new for Americans seeking to discover the once forbidden island nation.
The US government maintains travel restrictions to Cuba for persons of US jurisdiction (ie. Americans). The outdated policy is a relic of Cold War politics when Cuba’s relations with the now-defunct USSR posed a threat.
Americans can travel to Cuba without worry for most purposes except “tourism.” In fact, President Obama traveled to Cuba in March 2016 to promote engagement with the Cuba people.
Here are the official rules:
The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses within the 12 categories of authorized travel for many travel-related transactions to, from, or within Cuba that previously required a specific license (i.e., an application and a case-by-case determination). Travel-related transactions are permitted by general license for certain travel related to the following activities, subject to criteria and conditions in each general license: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions. Close relatives are also now allowed to visit or accompany authorized travelers for certain activities. No further permission from OFAC is required to engage in transactions covered by a general license.
Most people travel under the support for Cuban people or “people-to-people” category. Travelers must self certify their category of travel and do not need any prior approval from the US government prior to travel. Touring Havana, visiting museums and having a mojito at El Floridita are permitted under US law as long as you engage with local Cubans.
The Cuban government does not require any special permit to visit. Cuban tourist visas are easy to obtain from your tour operator or airlines for $25 or more.
Ricardo Herrero summarized the US travel policy for Cuba as follows:
Restrictions on “tourist activities” under TSRA continue to limit the right of U.S. citizens to freely visit Cuba and expose the Cuban people to the alternative that we represent as a nation. As Speaker of the House Paul Ryan recognized in 2002, “it has been a bedrock principle of American policy that travel is a device that opens closed societies.” These words are no less true today. It is time for Congress to finish the job that the President started, and bring an end to this failed policy.