How the rules for traveling to Cuba have changed

Cuban Parakeet, one of the island's 26 endemic bird species. Photo by Ekaterina Chernetsova (Creative Commons)
Cuban Parakeet, one of the island’s 26 endemic bird species. Photo by Ekaterina Chernetsova (Creative Commons)

The cover story of our June 2015 issue describes birding in Cuba, a place that holds loads of appeal for birders. Yet the island nation, a mere 90 miles from Florida, has been nearly off limits to American visitors for more than 50 years.

In December 2014, President Obama announced plans to normalize relations with Cuba, and a month later, new travel regulations were introduced. The embargo remains in place, but much has changed. Here’s an overview.

Americans are still not free to travel to Cuba as tourists. To go, they will have to meet one of 12 criteria for authorized travel, as they have in the past. The categories include family visits, official government business, journalistic endeavors, professional research and meetings, educational pursuits, and other activities.

Prospective travelers, however, will no longer have to obtain a specialized license from the government. Instead, they’ll need only a general license, and they will no longer need to submit a written request for permission to travel. If U.S. airlines begin offering flights to Havana, as they are soon ­expected to do, it’s feasible travelers may be able to buy a ticket online and simply check a box stating that the trip serves a legitimate purpose.

Under the general license for people-to-people or humanitarian programs, organizations such as the Friendship Association and Caribbean Conservation Trust will still be permitted to lead bird-study trips. A representative of the organization using the license must lead the trips.

Traveling within Cuba promises to be easier as well. Americans will be able to use credit and debit cards and bring back gifts. Authorized travelers will be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods of Cuban origin, including up to $100 of Cuban alcohol or tobacco products.

But keep in mind that Cuba’s economy remains largely cash-based. It may be quite some time before you can use credit cards in the country. Before you go, check with your bank whether your credit or debit cards will be accepted.

Visit Cuba with us!

BirdWatching magazine and the Caribbean Conservation Trust will lead a bird-survey trip to Cuba February 6-15, 2016, and you can join us! Accompany Editor Chuck Hagner, Arturo Kirkconnell, co-author of Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba, and other naturalists as we visit the western mountains, the Zapata Swamp, and other hotspots. Learn more.

A version of this article was published in the June 2015 issue of BirdWatching. Subscribe.

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