Travel to Havana

Legalities, Tips, and Festivals

written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

You can visit Havana legal, but as part of a 50-year old trade embargo, US law limits tourism in Cuba. You need a license (not visa) to travel there.

State Department rules say you may be license-eligible:

  • to visit relatives
  • for certain business, research, artistic or educational purposes
  • if you’re affiliated with a religious, philanthropic or humanitarian organization
  • if you’re a member of an international organization meeting in Cuba
  • to participate in a public athletic or artistic performance
  • if you’re a full time academic researcher with a Cuba-specific project
  • if you’re a credentialed journalist on assignment.

It’s a bureaucracy; apply at least several months in advance. For info:

Strictly speaking, it’s not actually illegal to travel to or be in Cuba without a license. What’s illegal is to spend money there; to do so is a Treasury Department violation with stiff financial penalties.

Still, many Americans find their way unofficially, for instance via Air Cubana from Toronto or Cancun.

There’s some risk. Border enforcement enhancements from the Bush administration remain – at least until the travel embargo is lifted. Cuba might not stamp your US passport, but Canadian and Mexican officials will. So if you go illegally, pray that US customs officials don’t notice your passport has two incoming stamps to, say, Mexico, in one week.

In general, you must plan ahead when visiting Cuba; see Tips below


  • Bring whatever meds you need; supplies are scarce.
  • You cannot use American credit cards; bring cash or Euros.
  • Medical care is good but tourists without insurance pay cash.
  • For health advisories, check Canadian or British government sites.
  • The U.S. Interests Section in Havana provides limited consular services.
  • Behave: It’s best not to run afoul of the Cuban government.
  • Hurricane season runs from June to November.