Can Americans Vacation In Cuba, Legally?

by Guest Blogger on December 2, 2009 · 10 comments


Che Guevara’s legend lives on in Cuba

Is it wise for an American to travel to Cuba, and is it legal for them…officially no.

According to the US State Department:

“Transactions related to tourist travel are not licensable. This restriction includes tourist travel to Cuba from or through a third country such as Mexico or Canada. U.S. law enforcement authorities enforce  these regulations at U.S. airports and pre-clearance facilities in third countries. Travelers who fail to comply with Department of the Treasury regulations could face civil penalties and criminal prosecution upon return to the United States.”

Officially by the State Department, only American citizens who met the below requirements are authorized:

  1. U.S. persons with close relatives (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) who are nationals of Cuba and persons who share the same dwelling as a family with the person who has the relatives in Cuba may currently travel to Cuba once per 12 months for unlimited length of stay. (According to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, third country nationals who reside in Cuba are considered to be Cuban nationals.) For additional trips to Cuba, a specific license may be issued.
  2. Journalists and supporting broadcasting or technical personnel (regularly employed in that capacity by a news reporting organization and traveling for journalistic activities).
  3. Official government travelers on official business.
  4. Members of international organizations of which the United States is also a member (traveling on official business).
  5. Full-time professionals, whose travel transactions are directly related to research in their professional areas, provided that their research: 1) is of a noncommercial, academic nature; 2) comprises a full work schedule in Cuba; and 3) has a substantial likelihood of public dissemination.
  6. Full-time professionals whose travel transactions are directly related to attendance at professional meetings or conferences in Cuba that are organized by an international professional organization, institution, or association that regularly sponsors such meetings or conferences in other countries. An organization, institution, or association headquartered in the United States may not sponsor such a meeting or conference unless it has been specifically licensed to sponsor it. The purpose of the meeting or conference cannot be the promotion of tourism in Cuba or other commercial activities involving Cuba, or to foster production of any bio-technological products.

There are many things on the internet talking about this subject and the inherent risk of it.  Is it doable for the regular traveler, yes!  Is it legal, yes and no, according to which government you’re talking with and how you read the above requirements.

According to the American government, you can actually travel to Cuba as an American, but you can’t spend any money there because of the embargo.  Which means there is no legal way of traveling there, as there is a clause in the law that says if you spend more than 24hrs in Cuba that one would have to spend some kind of monetary money to sustain oneself.  If you ask the Cuban government, their stance is “…the more the merry, we love tourist because they have tourist money!’

So the bottom line for a backpacker or traveler is…what???

You won’t be able to fly direct from the USA to Cuba, and would need to do a multi-stop trip.  Something like USA, Mexico, then Cuba.  I say it’s officially ok, and went with the information on #5 because:

  1. I travel full time and go to the school of life.
  2. I worked the whole time while there, 24/7 learning as much as I could.
  3. Have a website/blog and “a substantial likelihood of public dissemination.”

So I thought I could go to Cuba on a general license.  With a general license you do not have to apply to OFAC (Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control) for permission.  The only time that an American would is if they don’t meet the above requirements and would need to obtain a “specific license.”

That being said, I still didn’t get my passport stamped and I won’t proudly tell the US Immigration that I was ever in Cuba.  If they ask I’ll simply say “Yes and that I fell under requirements for a general license and wish to invoke my constitutional right of the 5th Amendment.”  By doing so you aren’t incriminating yourself and it’s the burden of the American government to prove you did spend money in Cuba.  Now think about this; they can’t send the FBI to Cuba to every bar/hotel/restaurant to see if you did, and the OFAC has little authority either because you can’t use credit cards in Cuba.

So in essence, the only way you can get into trouble is by incriminating yourself.  Don’t lie, don’t cross your stories…just simply be quiet.  Odds are the government isn’t going to railroad you over it, because frankly, that will take a lot of paperwork.  Just do yourself a favor and don’t bring any goods, rum or cigars, back!

I’ll be posting more on Cuba this week, about the pro’s & con’s of going to Cuba, street life, and overall thoughts.

What do you think, should Americans be allowed to go?  Is it fair that one race can, Cuban-Americans, and not the rest of the US population (I thought we’re all created equal)?  Would you travel to Cuba as the law stands?


[Editor's note:  This article does not constitute legal advice.  Proceed to Cuba at your own risk!]

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Categories: Cuba, Features, Planning
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Neil December 2, 2009 at 5:46 pm

One would think that your travels would've taught you that we are all NOT created equal!


Anon December 2, 2009 at 9:13 pm

True, people aren't in the reality of the actual world…but in America it's all about equal rights (as implied to being created equal)…which goes back to the question: Is it fair one race can in the US but not others?


Daniel December 4, 2009 at 12:21 am

who cares? :)
was in cuba in 2001 and seen a lot of american tourists. border control in cuba does not stamp your passport, so nobody knows. its quite nice and safe, however the standards for public transport in cities are very low.


Dave December 4, 2009 at 10:20 am

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for stopping by. I think the allure for me is that so many Americans think they can't go, that those who do, have the place sorta to themselves (I know plenty of Europeans and Aussies, Canadians, etc visit). The situation reminds me of Colombia, where people are too afraid to go due to the history of violence.


GlobalButterfly December 13, 2009 at 9:01 pm

If anyone is interested, I detail my foray in the forbidden territory of Cuba here:

It was the best risk I've EVER taken!!! Awesome entry. :)

PS I snuck 30 cohibas back with me.


Lauren Quinn December 30, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Ooh, you're good. I never thought of arguing why I applied for a general license; I just went.

Good tips, great article!


John McAuliff February 16, 2010 at 11:28 am

President Obama has the power to make it much easier for educational, cultural, religious and humanitarian travel, and there is a suggestion he might finally be moving in that direction (but could use encouragement from those who put him in the White House):

For conventional tourism, Congress must pass the Freedom to Travel bills so please tell your Representative and Senators how you feel about regaining a fundamental human right.

As noted above conscientious non-cooperation is another option as the Cubans do not stamp US passports and tourist visas are available from inbound airlines. Lawyers report that for at least two years no one has been sanctioned by the US government who traveled through a third country without a license.

Cancun is especially convenient because of an evening Mexicana/Click flight, but connections can also be made daily from Cayman (book tickets on Cayman Airlines web site), Nassau, Jamaica, Panama and Canada (especially for all-inclusives).

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
Dobbs Ferry, NY


Janice July 13, 2010 at 9:38 am

It is still much safer to follow he law instead of taking the risk, before I travel I often visit blogs like this one to give me more idea on how visa's work in other foreign countries.


Chiarra March 19, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Thanks for this. But I don’t understand how you were able to re-enter the US without lying? & how you were able to not get a double stamp. Thanks much


Dave March 19, 2013 at 5:13 pm

When you go to Cuba, they don’t stamp your passport at immigration. They stamp a paper, and you keep that with you.

When you enter the US, immigration is only going to be looking for the exit stamp of your departure country, which is Mexico.

Obviously you’re not going to mention the visit to Cuba, and there’s no real evidence in the passport to indicate you went there. You’d really only be lying if they directly asked you, and they have no reason to do that if there’s no evidence in the passport.

I think the only way you might get caught is if they take a really close look amongst all your stamps, and see you were outside Mexico for a week or two, but there’s no other country’s stamps to reflect where you were. Something like that.


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