Special note: For the latest information (December 2014) on US/Cuba relations read Traveling to Cuba: What can US citizens expect now.
Travelers to Cuba who are under the jurisdiction of the United States are subject to certain Cuba related exceptional regulations, restrictions and requirements with respect to traveling, travel services providers, expenses to be incurred and imports, among others. The entire risk for your violation of these regulations, restrictions, and requirements is yours. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that you visit http://www.treas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/programs/cuba/cuba.shtml in order to be aware of these regulations, restrictions, and requirements and of the effects of their violation.
For further information on U.S. Interests Section (USINT) and other travel information from the US State Department visit travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1097.html
What are the basic rules traveling to Cuba by Americans?
In 1961 the US government imposed an order limiting the freedom of its citizens to visit Cuba, and its airline offices and travel agents to book tourist travel to Cuba via third countries. These regulations are governed and enforced by the US Department of the Treasury (and within that OFAC). For more information see the OFAC site: http://www.treasury.gov/Pages/default.aspx
Americans are not actually prohibited from traveling to Cuba but are prohibited from spending any money in Cuba which effectively amounts to the same thing since with a maximum penalty for unauthorized travel to Cuba of US$ 250,000 and 10 years in prison most people are unwilling to argue that they managed to avoid spending any cash during the duration of their trip to Cuba!
Who do these rules apply to?
The Cuban travel restrictions apply to all US citizens and US residents–wherever they are located–even those who are traveling to Cuba from another country or who are holding dual citizenship with another country. The travel restrictions also apply to foreign citizens who are within the United States and who want to travel to Cuba from the United States. Only persons licensed by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) may travel to Cuba. This rule applies regardless of whether the person wants to travel from Miami or any other authorized US airport.
If persons qualify for a general license or hold specific licenses, they may engage in transactions directly related to their travel to Cuba, provided that the travel costs in Cuba meet OFAC’s per diem limitation. This limitation currently is $179 per day. Each licensed traveler cannot spend more than $179 each day on hotel and meal expenses, intrastate transportation services, and goods consumed or used in Cuba. Some licensed activities allow generally or specifically licensed travelers to spend additional money each day if these transactions are directly related to the licensed activity. The Cuban Regulations have a few examples of the allowed additional transactions.
How have these rules changed recently?
As of April 21, 2011, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control released new travel guidelines for travel to Cuba that mirror the intentions of President Obama’s directive aimed at liberalizing the regulations. Under these guidelines, many groups that have been previously denied access to Cuba can now travel under either general or specific licenses.
To travel to Cuba, you must be eligible under regulations published by the US Treasury Department. There are two kinds of licenses: a General License, which requires no permission or advance notification to US officials; and a Specific License, an actual piece of paper for which one needs to apply to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) which oversees the travel restrictions within the US Treasury Department.
How does a family license work?
All persons with a close relative who is a national of Cuba can travel on a general license as authorized by section 515.561(a) of the Cuban Assets Control Regulation. A “close relative” is defined as any individual related to a person (in this context, the family visitor) by blood, marriage, or adoption, who is no more than three generations removed from that person or from a common ancestor with that person. In addition, the section authorizes any person who shares a common dwelling as a family with a family visitor to accompany the family visitor on such a visit (by bobby). This means that if you are Cuban American, your non-Cuban-American husband or wife can legally travel with you.
If you qualify to travel on a general license for family travel, you do not need to seek permission from OFAC. However, it is a requirement of the general license that you be able to document, if asked, how you qualify under the general license.
How many Americans are now visiting Cuba?
By any measure, tourism from the US to Cuba is booming. Record tourism figures in 2011 are largely a consequence of this surge. In 2012, if Treasury approves ample student, church and “people-to-people” tours, the tally may approach 500,000 or even more.