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US visitors to Cuba ? The Rules

US visitors to Cuba ? The Rules

Written by and/or contributed to by Christopher Baker
How Americans cam legally travel to Cuba
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 & what has been the impact?
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.

By any measure, tourism from the US to Cuba is booming. Record tourism figures in 2011 (400,000-500,000) are largely a consequence of this surge.

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. 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.

Should I consider visiting Cuba illegally via a third country?
Opinion varies significantly between Americans when considering traveling to Cuba illegally via a third country. Despite very low chances of this triggering any consequences, many people (understandably) are uncomfortable with breaking a law even if they consider this an unreasonable one. It is worth considering that certain advocacy groups openly flout the law arriving back in the US en masse with t-shirts on showing their latest trip and waving Cuban flags with little or no consequences.

Anyone who considers traveling to Cuba this way should be fully aware of the OFAC regulations, http://www.treasury.gov/Pages/default.aspx. They should also be aware that the US government does not have a full Embassy in Cuba but an Interests Section. In the event that a traveler loses their passport, for example, they will have no choice but to go to the Interests Section, which, while theoretically is not linked to the enforcement of the regulations, again, understandably, makes travelers uncomfortable. Furthermore, it is important to point out that employees of the US interest section may not travel outside of Havana. In the event, for example, of a car crash outside of Havana, this will create a complex situation.

The reality is that well over 100,000 Americans have been traveling illegally to Cuba via a third country for many years with no consequences for the vast majority. Where enforcement has been triggered, generally it has been for individuals who have openly flouted the system by writing a book, for example. The maximum punishment is generally understood to be a fine of approx US$ 7,500. Recent de-funding of the enforcement entity has meant that few resources are dedicated to enforcing this regulation.

Common options for traveling via a third country include traveling via Toronto, Cayman Islands, Cancun, Bahamas and Jamaica. Obviously, if you have the chance to spend any time in the third party destination then you are less likely to be identified as someone who has recently visited Cuba. If you are asked where you stayed on your trip, it is always good if you can talk about somewhere specific in Cancun/Bahamas, etc.

What are the rules to qualify for a general license?
A General License allows qualifying persons to travel to and from Cuba. If persons meet the requirements in any one of the twelve general licenses set forth in the Cuban Regulations, they may travel to Cuba. They do not need to file license applications with OFAC or receive written authorization from OFAC. The general licenses authorize the following qualifying persons to travel to and from Cuba.

1 Individuals visiting close relatives who are Cuban nationals; 2 Individuals visiting close relatives who are employees assigned to the US Interests Section; 3 US and foreign government officials traveling to conduct official business (including US government employees of the US Interests Section in Havana); 4 Journalists regularly employed with a new-reporting organization and supporting personnel; 5 Full-time professionals conducting non-commercial, academic research in their professional area; 6 Full-time professionals attending professional meetings or conferences; 7 Telecommunications service providers attending professional meetings concerning telecommunications services; 8 Producers or distributors marketing or selling agricultural or medical products; 9 Telecommunications service providers marketing or selling telecommunication-related items; 10 Faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students of US colleges and universities participating in certain educational activities; 11 Members and staff of US religious organizations participating in religious activities; and 12 Cuban nationals returning to Cuba.
For more information see WWW.LAWG.ORG

What are the rules to qualify for a specific license?
A Specific License requires that the individual or organization file an application with OFAC and receive written authorization from OFAC. OFAC will consider the application on a case-by-case basis. For example, OFAC may issue specific licenses authorizing individuals/organizations to travel to Cuba for purposes of:

1 Visiting close relatives who are not Cuban nationals and who are not assigned to the US Interests Section; 2 Engaging in free-lance journalistic activities; 3 Conducting professional research that does not otherwise meet the general license set forth in the Cuban Regulations [see (5) and (6) above]; 4 Participating in educational exchanges that promote people-to-people contacts; 5 Participating in religious activities that do not fall within the general license in the Cuban Regulations [see (11) above]; 6 Participating in amateur or semi-professional athletic competitions; 7 Participating in public performances, clinics, workshops, or exhibitions; 8 Engaging in activities that will support the Cuban people, including human rights activities; 9 Developing and participating in humanitarian projects, including medical and health projects, educational training projects, community-based grassroots projects, agricultural and rural development projects, and small-scale enterprise projects; 10 Engaging in research activities for private foundations or educational institutes; 11 Exporting or importing informational materials; and 12 Marketing, selling, delivering, or servicing US items that that the US Department of Commerce has licensed for exportation to Cuba.
The specific license will be effective for a certain period of time. If OFAC issues one to an individual, the license will name the individual or individuals who are authorized to travel to Cuba. A specific license issued to an organization will not list the individuals who are authorized to travel, but instead will require that the organization issue a letter authorizing named individuals to travel under the license. 
For more information see WWW.LAWG.ORG

Which are the major US charter companies flying to Cuba?
ABC Charters   www.abc-charters.com
Airline Brokers Company   www.airlinebrokers.net
C&T Charters   www.ctcharters.com
CTS Charters   www.ctscharters.com
Cuba Travel Services   www.cubatravelservices.com
Gulfstream Air Charter   www.gulfstreamair.com
Island Travel & Tours   www.islandtraveltours.com
Marazul   www.marazul.com
Xael Travel Services   www.xaeltocuba.com

Who are the US travel service providers to Cuba?
Providers directly licensed by OFAC to book flights to Cuba, Cuban hotels, and other Cuba travel services

ABC Charters   www.abc-charters.com/
Academic Travel Abroad   www.academic-travel.com
Airline Brokers Company   www.airlinebrokers.net
American Tours International   www.cubaati.com
C&T Charters   www.ctcharters.com
CTS Charters   www.ctscharters.com
Cuba Travel Services   www.cubatravelservices.com
Common Ground Education   www.commongroundtravel.com
Distant Horizons   www.globalexchange.org
Global Exchange   www.distant-horizons.com
Gulfstream Air Charter   www.gulfstreamair.com
Holbrook Travel   www.holbrooktravel.com
Island Travel & Tours   www.islandtraveltours.com
Marazul   www.marazul.com
Tico Travel   www.destinationcuba.com
Xael Travel Services   www.xaeltocuba.com

Flights to Cuba from the US go from which airports?
Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas, Fort Worth, New Orleans, Chicago, San Juan, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Atlanta were recently added to the list of airports authorized to host Cuba flights. Prior to this Miami, New York and Los Angeles had been the only US airports allowed to host Cuba flights, with Miami capturing the bulk of Cuba travel from the United States. Orlando and Key West have also applied to host Cuba flights. According to an Administration announcement in early January, all US airports with “adequate customs and immigration capabilities” would be eligible to host Cuba flights.



  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
cpbaker@earthlink.net | www.christopherpbaker.com

Lowell Thomas Award 2008 Travel Journalist of the Year  

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