Visiting Cuba Legally: A Guide

Aaron Ansel, Vice-President, Head of Economic Sanctions & Anticorruption at First Republic Bank

July 28, 2015

**UPDATE: The legal rules pertaining to visiting Cuba are progressing rapidly at the Federal level. Visit the Treasury.gov website to stay up-to-date on the latest Cuba travel information.**

Just in time for summer, diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba have gotten warmer. Once a prolonged symbol of Cold War rivalry, the last year has seen the relationship between the United States and the island nation undergo a radical shift from chilly storm clouds to brightening skies. In May of 2015, President Obama announced that Cuba would be taken off of the state-sponsored terrorist list, paving the way for enhanced trade and travel possibilities, and in July it was announced that embassies would be re-opening. As the two governments work toward re-establishing permissive borders, many Americans are queuing up to visit this up-until-recently-forbidden tropical country before it succumbs to development and loses its old-world charm.

While the U.S. government’s approach toward travel to Cuba has changed in the past few months, flights are not yet completely unrestricted. That means if you’re planning on booking a tour to experience signature Cuban culture, you’ll want to make sure you follow the simple guidelines listed below.

Use an established, U.S.-based travel agency

Travel to Cuba is regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a little-known agency within the United States Department of the Treasury which maintains specific guidelines about what kind of trips to Cuba are permitted.  These “general licenses” can be complicated, so we recommend using a professional travel agency that knows what is permitted and what is not. This will make sure your trip is rewarding but still follows the rules.

In addition, the rules for Cuba travel apply differently to people within and outside of the United States.  The U.S. government is just beginning to ease restrictions, but other countries have long allowed practically unrestricted travel to the Pearl of the Antilles.  As a result, a tour operator located outside of the United States (say, in Canada) might not have thought through the American rules, and you could put yourself at risk for unpermitted travel.

In order to use funds from your First Republic accounts to book your trip by wire or withdrawal, your stay must be organized through U.S.-based travel agencies or tour operators and will necessitate an itinerary that outlines a full schedule of activities during your stay. An itinerary should be provided to you as part of your program; if it’s not, this could be a warning sign that your travel agent is not operating in accordance with U.S. law.

Abide by U.S. trade guidelines

Americans returning from a trip to Cuba are allowed to import $400 worth of goods into the U.S., but only $100 of that can be tobacco and alcohol products. If you’re a fan of Cuban cigars or rum, it’s especially important that you make sure to abide by this $100-guideline in order for your return to the U.S. to be easy and issue-free.

Sort out your travel finances beforehand and keep your banker informed

First Republic Bank and other financial institutions currently disallow the use of debit/ATM cards and restrict access to online accounts while customers are in Cuba. Furthermore, due to U.S. bank regulations, withdrawals, checks, wire payments, and other money transfers are heavily scrutinized for the legitimacy and authorization of travel.

If you are planning to withdraw currency or use bank services (such as a wire payment) for your authorized travel, follow the steps below to ensure smooth sailing:

  1. Notify your banker of your planned trip to Cuba.  Send her or him your itinerary, and let them know which travel agency you are using.
  2. After you have received confirmation from your banker that the trip is authorized, visit the branch to withdraw or purchase currency since you will be unable to use your debit/ATM card in Cuba. Remember to bring the copy of your itinerary when you come in.
  3. If you are sending a wire payment in connection with the trip, you can do so at this time.

Please remember that if you’re unsure whether your stay in Cuba is sanctioned by the U.S. government, independently-booked vacations or non-U.S. travel agent booked trips remain prohibited.

Cuba was once the premiere getaway destination for American movers and shakers, and it looks like that may be the case again soon. As long as you abide by the above regulations and use your best judgment, you should have no problems getting an early glimpse into one of the most beautiful and unique countries in the Caribbean.

All information in this report is from sources deemed to be reliable.

The views of the author of this article do not necessarily represent the views of First Republic Bank.

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©First Republic Bank, 2015