How Can US Citizens Legally Travel to Cuba?

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Musical power couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z jetted down to a tropical and somewhat-forbidden destination last week for their fifth wedding anniversary: Cuba. Because of travel restrictions to the country, the couple’s trip raised the eyebrows of some U.S. lawmakers, particularly Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, a Cuban American and vocal critic of U.S. travel to Cuba. Rubio announced he wanted a full explanation of the trip, though it apparently was properly and fully licensed as a cultural trip by the U.S. Treasury Department.

When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, relations between the U.S. and its southern Caribbean neighbor were severed. The U.S. enacted a hard-line trade embargo that restricted travel, and to this day U.S. citizens looking to visit Cuba have to acquire permission from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets (OFAC). OFAC “prohibits persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States from engaging in transactions in which Cuba or a Cuban national has any interest whatsoever, direct or indirect, including transactions related to travel,” reads the official documentation on Cuba sanctions, available here

Travel restrictions stemming from the embargo have eased over the years, however, particularly during the Clinton and Obama administrations. (George W. Bush reversed a number of Clinton’s measures, which Obama then reenacted.) Today, travelers do not need pop star-worthy connections to hop a plane and visit the island, though mounds of paperwork and patience likely are required. Today, Cuba travel restrictions are as lenient as they have ever been—more people and types of trips, such as cultural, academic, and religious, are eligible to receive the proper licensing.

In particular, the “people-to-people” license has brought more legal U.S. travelers to the island. First created by Clinton and then reinstated by Obama, the licenses make it possible for conceivably any curious traveler with the funds to visit Cuba legally with a licensed tour operator. The tours have to be booked solid with a “schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba,” as the Department of Treasury guidelines state. In short, travelers should not expect many idle beach hours.

The “people-to-people” license falls under the “specific” license category for travel to Cuba. Citizens can apply for a “general” or “specific” license depending on the purpose of their trip, details of which are available in the PDF “Comprehensive Guidelines for License Applications to Engage in Travel-related Transactions Involving Cuba” available here on the Department of Treasury’s resource page. 

“General” licenses include visiting “close relatives” who are Cuban citizens, licenses for journalists, research, educational and religious licenses, as well as certain commercial marketing licenses. “Specific” licenses include reasons such as academic seminars or conferences and visiting “close relatives” who are neither Cubans nor employed by the U.S. Interests Section, which exists in lieu of an embassy or consulate in Cuba.

The OFAC recommends hopeful travelers begin the license application process no later than 45 days before their scheduled departure. Applicants can take care of the paperwork online, but then have to print, sign and send the final application. For the logistics, visitors must make sure their transportation is via an authorized service provider. The official list of such providers is available here.

There are tales of sneaking across the border, often by catching a flight from Mexico or Canada, but Department of Treasury documents have some ominous-sounding text on the subject: “Th[e] restriction includes tourist travel to Cuba from or through a third country such as Mexico or Canada … Travelers who fail to comply with Department of the Treasury regulations could face civil penalties and criminal prosecution upon return to the United States.” Still, a quick online search will pull up plenty of hits about tips and tricks for making it happen scot-free. There’s always the chance someone like Marco Rubio might want answers, though.