The answer is yes, under specific conditions. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the United States Department of the Treasury, monitors travel to Cuba conducted under general licenses and processes applications for specific licenses, which allow travel-related transactions that pertain to Cuba. US citizens wishing to travel to Cuba must arrange their trips through authorized travel services providers. OFAC maintains a list of authorized providers on its website.
Under current regulations, US citizens cannot travel to Cuba simply to vacation there, even if they go to Cuba via a third country, such as Canada. Any travel to Cuba must be undertaken in compliance with a general or specific license.
If your reason to travel to Cuba falls under one of the eight general license categories, your travel service provider will check your eligibility to travel before booking your trip. The eight general license categories are:
- Visiting close relatives who are either Cuban nationals or who work for the US government at the US Interests Section, which is the closest thing the United States has to an official presence in Havana;
- Official government and intergovernmental organization travel;
- Journalistic travel by reporters and their technical and support crews;
- Professional research and meeting or conference attendance. Travelers must conduct their research in their areas of professional expertise and be full-time professionals in that field. Conferences and meetings must be organized by an international organization in that profession. Conferences put on by Cuban, American or third country organizations do not qualify;
- Educational activities. These activities are open to faculty, students and staff of accredited degree-granting institutions based in the United States that serve graduate and / or undergraduate students;
- Religious activities sponsored by a religious organization based in the US;
- Telecommunications sales, service, marketing and delivery; telecommunications products must comply with the Department of Commerce's export and re-export policies regarding Cuba;
- Agricultural product, medicine and medical device sales, service, marketing and delivery; these products must also comply with the Department of Commerce's policies.
If you want to travel to Cuba, but can't qualify under any of the general license categories, you must apply for a specific license or travel with a tour company that has a specific license. Again, leisure travel to Cuba is not permitted under a specific license. An organized tour group visiting Cuba must undertake a full schedule of allowable activities.
Individuals may apply for specific licenses and, if approved, arrange travel to Cuba through an authorized travel service provider. There is a limit to how much individuals may spend on travel, meals and accommodations within Cuba. According to Robert Curley, About.com's Guide to Caribbean Travel, travelers should plan carefully, because debit and credit cards issued by US banks will not work in Cuba. In addition, there is a 10 percent surcharge on exchanges of dollars for Cuban convertible pesos, the currency tourists are required to use. (Tip: To avoid the surcharge, bring your travel money to Cuba in Canadian dollars or Euros, not US dollars.)
There are 15 categories of specific licenses, some of which pertain to commercial activities in the telecommunications and medical industries. Guided tours organized under specific licenses usually comply with one of the following categories:
- Professional activities and meetings;
- Educational activities;
- Educational exchanges;
- Religious activities;
- Athletic competitions;
- Performances, workshops, clinics and exhibitions;
- Humanitarian or other activities that directly benefit the Cuban people.
Which Tour Groups Offer Trips to Cuba?
The list of travel providers licensed to offer guided tours in Cuba is growing.
Some tour companies, such as Insight Cuba, offer traditionally-styled tours that emphasize people-to-people opportunities. On Insight Cuba's tours, you will visit one or more cities and meet both experts on Cuba and local people. You might watch a dance performance, visit a school or stop by a medical clinic during your trip.
Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) offers four themed tours of Cuba, each focusing on a different aspect of Cuban culture. One tour, for example, emphasizes Cuba's rich artistic traditions, taking you to dance rehearsals and performances, an art school and a senior center. The "Shalom Cuba" tour brings you to Jewish communities in three Cuban cities.
Motorcycle lovers might want to save up for MotoDiscovery's 10- or 15-day motorcycle tour of Cuba. While exploring Cuba by motorcycle (provided), you will have the chance to meet some of Cuba's own Harley-Davidson aficionados, the Harlistas. MotoDiscovery's tours are not cheap, but they do offer a unique way to visit this one-of-a-kind destination.
Can I Go to Cuba on My Own?
That depends. You will need to apply for a specific license unless you are going for one of the reasons listed under "General Licenses," above. If your application is approved, you must arrange your trip through an authorized travel services provider. You may need to provide reports to OFAC before and / or after your trip. You will have to get a visa, carry cash or travelers checks and buy a non-US health insurance policy if you are from the United States. And forget about buying Cuban cigars to bring back home; they are still illegal in the US.