Traveling to Cuba: What to Know

Legal restrictions have eased, but aren't gone

By G.K. Sharman | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on October 18, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Peter Quinter, C. Ryan Reetz and Pedro J. Martinez-Fraga

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When President Barack Obama announced in December 2014 that the United States and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic ties after a half-century of glaring at each other across the Florida straits, some cheered the decision; others condemned it.

In any case, it means embassies and diplomats, trade and commerce, tourism and cigars. Right?

Not so fast, says Peter Quinter, an international law attorney at Gunster in Miami. “Americans will be able to travel there, just as they do in every other country,” he says. “We’re at the very beginning of a new relationship with Cuba, and we here in Florida will be leaders in developing that relationship.”

But it will take some time.

Cuba Travel for U.S. Citizens: Who Can Go

Americans can visit Cuba, but not simply as tourists—instead, they need to have a reason that fits into one of the 12 travel licenses issued by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). These categories include:

  • Academic research;
  • Journalism;
  • Family visits;
  • Religious purposes;
  • Official business of the U.S. government;
  • Support for the Cuban people.

People who have never been, they should not do this independently. The people-to-people tours organize everything for you. That’s what people should do on their first trip.

Peter Quinter

First Time to Cuba? Before You Go, Check Currency and Tour Operators

Travel restrictions have been eased somewhat within those categories, prompting online travel agencies to quickly begin advertising flights, ferry rides, and day trips to Havana. Most people undertaking independent travel to Cuba should still travel with groups, Quinter advises.

“People who have never been, they should not do this independently,” he adds as a travel tip. “The people-to-people tours organize everything for you. That’s what people should do on their first trip.”

A big issue is money. Travelers need to convert their U.S. dollars (USD) to official Cuban currency (since 2021, the Cuban peso or moneda nacional) for hotels, restaurants, car rentals, tour operations, and purchases since credit card and debit card processing capability is limited. However, some U.S. credit card companies are moving toward allowing their cards to be used in Cuba.

As Cuba becomes more and more opened up to investment from the U.S., people will find themselves, understandably, having more interests in Cuba. There are many reasons to believe Cuba would welcome investment from U.S. sources.

C. Ryan Reetz

Investing in Cuba?

Cuba will be open to direct investment from the U.S., assuming the embargo is lifted, say C. Ryan Reetz and Pedro Martinez-Fraga of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner in Miami. Reetz is the managing partner of the Miami office. Martinez-Fraga’s family escaped Cuba when he was a small child. He is co-leader of the firm’s international arbitration team.

Individuals won’t be able to buy stocks, but large institutional investors—investment houses and firms that manage mutual funds and 401(k)s and the like—could see Cuba as more of a financial opportunity.

“As Cuba becomes more and more opened up to investment from the U.S., people will find themselves, understandably, having more interests in Cuba,” says Reetz. “There are many reasons to believe Cuba would welcome investment from U.S. sources.”

The rest of the world already invests in Cuba.

Pedro J. Martinez-Fraga

Is Cuba Ready?

In order to build a vigorous hospitality industry and strengthen economic ties to the U.S., Cuba would need a financial infrastructure and trade agreements with the U.S.

However, U.S. companies that operate everything from hotels to highway toll booths would want to be sure their investments won’t be appropriated by the state, as happened after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

Martinez-Fraga says the Cuban government has had a good track record with foreign investment over the past decade. “The rest of the world already invests in Cuba,” he notes.

Many Americans just want to know if they can order cigars, Cuban food, or a case of rum. Not yet, Quinter says, though one day that may be possible. However, U.S. visitors to Cuba are allowed to come home with $400 worth of items, including $100 worth of liquor and cigars. Quinter planned to come back with his share.

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of international law and immigration.

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