Everything You Need to Know Before Cruising to Cuba

Heard the news? Carnival Cruise Line is sailing to Cuba this year! Our new sailings will visit Cuba’s capital, Havana in 2017 on a cruise from Tampa. How you choose to make this amazing Caribbean island a part of your vacation is up to you, but we’d definitely recommend visiting soon!

Here’s the first thing you should know about sailing to Cuba: it’s a little different than visiting other island destinations on a cruise. Havana is unique, and the difference is about more than just the history or politics of the place. There are extra U.S. government requirements that need to be met when cruising to Cuba. The good news: Carnival has worked hard to make the process as easy for you as possible.

We thought up some of the most frequently asked questions folks might have about cruising to Cuba with Carnival. Here’s what you should keep in mind.

Cuban streets

Carnival Paradise will be visiting Cuba.

Carnival Paradise will be making the trip from Tampa to Havana, Cuba. Havana will be featured as a destination on select sailings. The first Carnival Paradise sailing that visits Havana leaves Tampa on June 29th. Check carnival.com for a complete list of itineraries that visit Havana.

There are some special requirements involved in visiting Cuba.

Folks from the U.S. (including U.S. residents who were born in Cuba) and people from other countries can travel to Cuba. There are two ways to become eligible. The first way is to meet one of the twelve categories of eligible travel:

  1. Visiting family in Cuba
  2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research and professional meetings
  5. Educational activities, including People-to-People exchange programs
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian projects
  10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  12. Certain authorized export transactions

The easiest way to become eligible is to simply purchase a Cuba shore excursion from Carnival. Every shore excursion we sell fulfills requirement #5, the educational/people-to-people requirement.

Another way to become eligible is to obtain a license issued by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”), though we definitely recommend #5 from the list above.

To find out more about government requirements around the 12 categories, click here.

colorful buildings in cuba

You definitely need a passport to visit Cuba.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection requires a valid passport for all Cuba cruises… and remember that the passport also has to be valid for six months beyond your cruise to Cuba. Now might be a good time to renew your passport!

You’ll also need a visa, but we can help with that.

The Cuban government requires that all guests have a Cuban visa. Which type you need depends on certain factors, including why you’re traveling to Cuba. (Remember the list above?)

The good news is that, for most guests, the process will be easy. Almost anyone can enter Cuba utilizing a tarjeta turistica (that means “tourist card” in Spanish). When you cruise with Carnival, you can buy this directly from us for $75 per person. We’ll automatically add it to your onboard bill.

There’s a good chance this card is the one visa you need, but if you were born in Cuba or are traveling for other specific reasons, you’ll need to get your own non-tourist visa from the Cuban government.

If you were born in Cuba, the visa requirements are a little different.

Cuban-born guests need to request a visa from the Cuban Embassy or use a Cuban passport to get into the country. Note that this is not a process Carnival can assist with, and remember that the application process can take several months. Start early!

You can make visa and passport requests directly to the Cuban Embassy (by phone: 1-202-797-8518), or through an authorized third-party company like ABC Charters (1-877-817-1160) or VisaCentral (1-877-535-0688).

People-to-people programs are a great way to see Cuba.

People-to-people programs are one of the permitted categories of U.S. guests to visit Cuba. According to regulations, these programs must include “a full-time schedule of activities that will create educational interactions between guests and the Cuban people.”

The easiest way to comply with this requirement is to take a Cuban shore excursion offered by Carnival. Another option is participating in a third-party self-guided program. However, guests who take this option must keep their own records documenting a full-time schedule of authorized activities — this is very important.

After your scheduled people-to-people activities are done for the day, feel free to explore on your own!

Yes, you can buy stuff in Cuba.

Guests are generally authorized to bring merchandise acquired in Cuba into the United States, for personal use and/or consumption, as accompanied baggage. (That means you can’t bring it back to resell.) Bring home as much stuff as you want, but remember that your bags are subject to the normal U.S. customs value limits on duty and tax exemptions for merchandise imported.

Yes, even cigars and rum.

Some top choices: Havana Club, Cohíba, Montecristo… enjoy!

Cuban cigars next to a hat and cuba license plate

Your medical insurance may not cover you in Cuba, but don’t worry.

Cuba’s system of state medical care is widely recognized to be top-notch. The Cuban government requires that all visitors pay a small local health insurance fee in case medical services are needed in Cuba. This fee is included in your taxes, fees, and port expenses charged when you book a cruise.

No special vaccinations are required for visiting Cuba.

Wheelchair users are welcome in Cuba, but set your expectations.

Accessibility in Cuba can be limited due to infrastructure, which is not as extensive as in other countries. While accessible facilities do exist, visitors using wheelchairs may be limited to the ground floor of buildings, since many buildings do not have elevators.

Prepare to use cash in Cuba.

There are two Cuban currencies: CUP (Cuban Peso) and CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). Tourists will generally use CUC, while CUP is used by locals. Guests can exchange their money for CUC at the cruise terminal, in hotels, banks and exchange offices (those are known as “CADECAs”). We’d recommend starting the day with enough local currency for the rest of the day.

The U.S. government now allows travelers to use their credit and debit cards in Cuba, though most U.S. banks have not yet worked out the necessary arrangements, so your cards still may not work. (Also, most businesses in Cuba are still cash-only, so keep that in mind.)

You’ll definitely want to check with your card provider to see if your card will work in Cuba. Still, we recommend you bring cash — you can’t rely on a credit card in Cuba.

classic American cars driving down a Cuban street at sunset

Always be careful in Cuba (like everywhere else)… but don’t worry.

Think of Havana the same way you would any other travel destination! Here are a few Cuba safety tips:

  • Leave your valuables aboard the ship in your locked stateroom safe.
  • Don’t be flashy — avoid wearing expensive jewelry.
  • Carry only as much cash as you think you’ll need for the day.
  • Be discreet when handling cash in public.
  • Keep your belongings secure and out of sight.

There are a few things you should definitely bring with you. 

When you leave the ship, remember to carry the following:

  • Your passport
  • Your visa
  • Your Carnival “Sail and Sign card” (you’ll get this on the ship)
  • Cash (see notes about converting money)

Remember these other Cuba travel tips.

  • Drink only bottled beverages.
  • The climate is tropical. Wear loose-fitting airy clothes, comfortable shoes and a hat.
  • Air conditioning in Cuba is uncommon; bring your own fan and/or misting device.
  • Purchase items only from authorized sellers.
  • Exchange money only at the cruise terminal, in hotels, banks and exchange offices (known as “CADECAs”).

Don’t count on cell phones or Internet access in Cuba.

We can’t say for sure whether your cell phone will work once you get off the ship. Check with your mobile phone provider about coverage in Cuba.

Wi-Fi is available aboard the ship, but Internet access is generally not available on land in Cuba.

Have fun in Cuba!

Okay, we know it may seem like there’s a lot you need to know about cruising to Cuba, but it’s worth it — these Carnival cruises to Havana are going to be a truly unique up-close look at a place most of us have never had the chance to visit. This isn’t just another island!

And just so you know, we’re always here to help! Feel free to contact us.

This post was created for Away We Go with Carnival, the destination for getting in the getaway state of mind.