So, you want to go to Cuba?
The entire population of planet Earth is permitted to hop on a plane and visit Cuba anytime they want, except for citizens of the United States. For them, things are a bit more complicated.
Let me start off by saying there is a legal way for US citizens to visit Cuba. Authorized “Travel Service Providers” are companies licensed by the U.S. government to conduct such tours. These tours are often very nice, but are limited by the current regulations of the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) in what they can offer. For the average American, the most common type of trip is known as a “people-to-people” tour. Such trips require a license issued by the OFAC and the itineraries (reviewed by the OFAC before a license is issued) must involve a “full schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.” The regulations go on to say that authorized activities by People-to-People Groups do not include “tourist activities” under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, which prohibits the OFAC from licensing travel-related transactions for tourist activities. Traveling to Cuba when the purpose of travel is to engage in tourism is never authorized.
If taking a structured “people-to-people” tour is what you are looking for, and money is not your first concern (these trips can be expensive), you can stop reading now and call an authorized Travel Service Providers who can hook you up. It is estimated that up to 400,000 Cuban Americans will legally visit Cuba each year (there is a special license for them to visit family members) and another 50,000 Americans will visit as part of other licensed tours. A complete list of authorized travel service providers can be found by Googling “list TSP”.
However, if a structured trip is not for you…if you are a bit of maverick and prefer to actually engage in “tourist activities”…if you are willing to take some small amount of risk…there is another option.
The Current Reality
Before we get into the how-to of visiting Cuba on the QT, let’s make sure we understand the current reality and the law.
Technically, it is not illegal for U.S citizens to travel to Cuba. It is however illegal to spend any money that might end up in the hands of the Cuban government unless you have an OFAC-issued license. Even authorized travelers to Cuba are subject to daily spending limits and are prohibited from bringing any Cuban “souvenirs” or other goods into the United States, with the exception of information and informational materials. This might seem to be a loophole that would let you travel there for a day and return without breaking the law. However, at least two problems exist. First, unless you plan on swimming to Cuba (watch out for the jelly fish), getting there will almost certainly result in some money finding its way into Cuba hands. Part of your airline ticket goes to paying Cuban government fees. Second, when you leave the country (even if you are swimming) you must pay a $30 departure tax. While some people try to argue that there are ways to legally travel to Cuba without the required OFAC license, it is unlikely the US government will agree with that.
This means that traveling to Cuba without the required license is a crime. Committing any crime involves certain risks. The law permits the US government to levy criminal fines up to $250,000 USD, civil fines up to $65,000 per violation, and jail terms up to 10 years for doing this. Don’t despair… the news is not all bad.
Getting to Cuba is easy. The US government takes no direct action to stop you, and the Cuban government welcomes you (and your money) into their country. Upon your return to the United States is where possible issues will arise, but that is why you are reading this. What these issues are, suggestions for avoiding them, and how to deal with them if you fail to avoid them can be found in the Returning to the USA section of this booklet. Smile, this is going to be fun.