Cuba's digital destination
Written by and/or contributed to by Christopher Baker
How does the dual-currency system work in Cuba?
Money provokes a certain sense of confusion in Cuba as the dual economy takes some time getting used to. Two currencies circulate in Cuba: convertible pesos (CUCs) and Cuban pesos (referred to as moneda nacional, abbreviated MN). The currency situation is made more confusing since Cubans will refer to both CUCs and Moneda Nacional as Pesos. For the average Cuban it will be obvious which they are referring to, but this may lead to confusion for tourists who consider that they are bargaining in local currency only to find that their counter-party has a CUC expectation!
Up until the Special Period following the Soviet Collapse (1990-1), the Cuban economy only worked in Cuban pesos. The US Dollar was illegal. As part of the package of economic reforms introduced thereafter, the US Dollar was legalized and a dual economy established which certain goods and services (especially for foreigners) were priced in US Dollars, while the Cuban population still largely was paid in and consumed in Cuban pesos. Over time, this system was established as a full dual currency system and the US dollar was taken out of circulation and replaced with the CUC. This was pegged at 1:1 with the US Dollar.
Today Cubans are still paid in Cuban pesos if they work for the state or foreign companies although it is legal for them to receive additional CUC payments from foreign companies, receive remittances, and/or establish small businesses in which they receive money in CUCs.
In some ways, the Cuban Peso can now be seen more as a voucher system than a functioning currency. A Cuban state employee may be paid an average monthly salary of 500 MN (Cuban Pesos) per month, which could be converted into only CUC 20. This is misleading however, since with the 500 Cuban pesos it is possible to pay for some basic food sold in state shops in moneda nacional, the electricity, water, gas and phone bills as well as transport on local buses and even go to the cinema or national ballet!
Is it necessary to change money into moneda nacional as well as CUCs?
For most tourists, moneda nacional has little relevance since most, if not all of their expenditure will be in CUCs. This includes accommodation, food in most restaurants, taxis, bus tickets, nightclub entrances, tips and so on. Things that can be paid for in local currency include fruit and vegetables at the agricultural market, street food (such as pizza and peanuts) as well as local buses. Even at the agricultural market, the prices are such that a pound of tomatoes may cost CUC 1 or 24 Cuban Pesos (i.e. the same). There are some restaurants and bars/cafes, which charge in Cuban Pesos although the quality is generally poor. If you can make out that you are a Cuban then you may be able to get away with paying museum entrances or trips to the ballet in local currency but that is about it.
What is the best currency to bring to Cuba?
On March 14, 2011 the Cuban Central Bank restored parity between the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) and the U.S. dollar. This effectively means that the CUC was devalued by 8% in relation to the US dollar and other foreign currencies. However, the 10 percent fee for buying CUCs with U.S. dollars in cash remains in place. So, the cardinal rule for bringing money to Cuba is to try and avoid US Dollars. The best currencies are Euros, Canadian Dollars, or Sterling since these are the most common and the exchange rates are generally quite reasonable. Bear in mind that the CUC is pegged to the US Dollar (at 1:1) so a stronger US Dollar means a stronger CUC (and hence less CUCs for your Euros/Sterling etc.). Other currencies, which are universally accepted at banks or CADECAS (exchange bureau) include Swiss Francs (CHF), Mexican Pesos (MXN) and Japanese Yen (JPY).
There is no outright commission charged on transactions in cash although the exchange rate will generally be 3% worse than you would be charged on your credit card (for which you pay a 3% processing fee) so net you receive the same CUCs for changing 100 Euros in cash or 100 Euros on your credit card.
Where is the best place to change money in Cuba?
The easiest place to change money is at a CADECA (exchange bureau) or at a Cuban *BFI Bank. The exchange rates in all CADECAS and all banks are identical so there is no need to shop around. Hotels often have CADECAS within their premises. If you change money at the hotel front desk you will generally receive a worse exchange rate then elsewhere.
It is generally very easy to find the nearest CADECA and you should be aware that any Cuban who tries to persuade you that it is complicated or that he can provide you a better rate of exchange will probably be engaged in some sort of scam which is best avoided.
At the airport in Havana there is often a long line to exchange money at the CADECA once you are through immigration and customs. There is a place to change money actually in the hall where you retrieve your luggage, which is worth using. Again the exchange rate is absolutely standard. An easy alternative is simply to use an ATM for cash withdrawals, which works exactly the same as receiving a cash advance on a credit card at a CADECA (see more below).
* There are four main banks in Cuba. BFI is the most reliable. You may be able to use other Cuban banks but these are less likely to be able to meet your needs since most operate mainly in Cuban Pesos.
Can I use my VISA card in Cuba?
Credit or debit cards are the most convenient way to access money in Cuba. VISA and MASTERCARD are accepted in all BFI/Banco Metropolitano banks, as well as in most CADECAS and in ATM machines. You will be charged a 3% processing fee for a cash advance from the Cuban bank as well as whatever your home bank charges. This is a quick, easy and generally reliable way of getting cash out. This is not foolproof, however, and there are certain problems with using credit/debit cards in Cuba as follows:
(i) If you have a bank-card which is linked to a US bank. Some European banks may also have a US holding parent company in which case your card will not work in Cuba. (ii) Outside of major cities, the communication line may not be reliable all of the time in which case your transaction will not be able to be processed. (iii) ATM machines have a reputation for being unreliable (although are unlikely to swallow your card). Furthermore, many ATM machines do not work for international VISA cards. In Havana, the most reliable are the machines in the Panorama Hotel and courtyard of the Miramar Trade Center.
How widely accepted is it to pay with my credit card in Cuba?
Cash is king in Cuba. Except in major hotels, you should not consider it a viable option to pay for goods or services with a credit card anywhere in Cuba. Given how easy it is to get a cash advance in Cuba, you should simply stock up on cash at regular intervals.
What options are there for American travelers?
One option which receives widespread recommendations (although we have not used it) is Caribbean Transfers (www.caribbeantransfers.com). This is a debit card company operating out of Canada that allows you to create a debit card account. You may make deposits into your account using a Credit Card or transfer/money order. The deposits are converted into CUC and are available to the cardholder at most banks and CADECAS in Cuba.
Do traveler’s checks (TC) work in Cuba?
Traveler’s checks (TC) work in Cuba including from USA companies such as American Express. Fees vary up to about 3% for their purchase. It is worth bearing in mind the following:
(i) If lost or stolen, you cannot receive a refund while in Cuba. (ii) You must retain the receipts of your purchase of the TCs as it will almost universally be required before they can be redeemed in Cuba. (iii) The further you get from any tourist center, e.g. Havana, the harder it is to find places that will accept them.
What other money matters should I be aware of?
Always bring new bank notes, with no rips, tears or markings. All foreign coins are useless.
Make sure that you get a printed receipt when changing money.
There is no commission on changing money in Cuba, the commission is built into the exchange rate so do not accept a teller telling you otherwise.
You can change any leftover money at the airport on your way out although make sure you have enough time.
Christopher P. Baker is a professional travel writer and photographer, and leads tours of Cuba for MotoDiscovery and National Geographic Expeditions. His six books about Cuba include MI MOTO FIDEL: MOTORCYCLING THROUGH CASTRO?S CUBA (National Geographic Adventure Press), winner of two national book awards.
? Christopher P Baker
travel writer ? photographer ? moto-journalist ? cuba expert
firstname.lastname@example.org | www.christopherpbaker.com
Lowell Thomas Award 2008 Travel Journalist of the Year