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Photos: Fotos Habana

Traveling to Cuba legally as an American is possible, if slightly complicated. Here are some ways you can make it work.

While it’s still challenging to travel legally, President Obama has eased some of the restrictions and opened up some opportunities. Having just returned from the island, I can attest that the process involves months of planning, tons of paperwork, and plenty of waiting around. But it’s a worthy process for those who are concerned about traveling illegally through a third country and facing the possibility of a hefty fine upon return.

The first thing to know about legal travel to Cuba is that there are two licenses: a general license and a specific license. Traveling under general license is the easiest because you don’t have to ask the government for permission, but you can be asked for documented proof from your trip that shows you traveled under that category.

An extensive list of travel categories is available on the Marazul, Global Exchange, and the Center For Cuban Studies.

Some of the categories for legal travel to Cuba are:

Family Visits: This falls under general license.

Professional Research or Attendance at a Conference: This is a general license available to full time professionals provided they spend the majority of their time in Cuba conducting research. This can involve site visits, attending lectures, and other academic endeavors.

The majority of group travel opportunities fall under this category. Some examples of current opportunities are “Reality Tours” that explore everything from alternative healing to music offered by Global Exchange, and a teacher’s delegation being put together through the Center for Cuban Studies.

Journalists: Full-time journalists that work for a news gathering organization can travel to Cuba under general license. Freelancers writing articles on Cuba can obtain a specific license provided they have a publication history.

Study Abroad: Specific Licenses are granted for undergraduate and graduate study abroad programs lasting longer than ten weeks. There are a multitude of American universities currently offering programs in Cuba. Presbyterian College’s program is available to students from any university.

Humanitarian Projects: Under a specific license, groups can take donations and engage in humanitarian trips. Most of these trips are carried out by religious groups such as the Cuba-America Jewish Mission, Peachtree Presbyterian Church, and several others. The Cuba AIDS Project also takes small groups interested in HIV/AIDS outreach.

It’s unfortunate that a decades long political battle deters Americans from visiting Cuba, because there is so much to be learned on both sides from an interaction between Americans and Cubans. Jumping the hoops to travel legally might be worth it for interaction with a place most Americans see only through the media.

Trip Planning


About The Author

Gabriela Garcia

Gabriela Garcia is a freelance writer who splits her time between New York, Miami, and, as often as possible, the world. In between pondering the universe, she enjoys Jivamukti yoga, camping, and chance encounters with fascinating people. She loves interacting with fellow travelers on Twitter.

  • Lauren Quinn

    When I recently did a post on how to travel to Cuba illegally as an American (, someone on Twitter responded, “Is there any other way?” Thanks for providing much-needed, and often unknown, info for those who don’t want to risk it.

  • JoAnna

    Thank you so much for this post! I really want to go to Cuba before it is opened commercially to Americans, and I appreciate having the information that will help me do it legally (not that I wouldn’t consider going anyway).

  • Abbie

    I second JoAnna – I had no idea there were ways to legally get into Cuba! Thanks!

  • Andi

    TRAVEL TO CUBA!!! It will change your life. :)

    I went legally though…

    • Andi

      Woops, I meant illegally! ;-)

  • Tim Patterson

    I went to Cuba as a student with the Williams Mystic program in maritime studies. We made a 36 hour port call in Havana while sailing on a tall-ship from Key West. Unfortunately, we drank way too much rum and I don’t believe the Williams-Mystic program will stop in Cuba again. Oops.

  • Julie

    Wepa, Gabi! So glad to see your byline here and stoked, always, to see folks traveling to Cuba, legally… and otherwise. ;)

  • John McAuliff

    President Obama has the power to make it much easier for educational, cultural, religious and humanitarian travel, and there is a suggestion he might finally be moving in that direction:

    For conventional tourism, Congress must pass the Freedom to Travel bills so please tell your Representative and Senators how you feel about regaining a fundamental human right.

    Conscientious non-cooperation is another option as the Cubans do not stamp US passports and tourist visas are available from inbound airlines. Lawyers say that for at least two years no one has been sanctioned by the US government who traveled through a third country without a license.

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development
    Dobbs Ferry, NY

    • Tim Patterson

      Thanks for this information.

  • Tyler

    I wish I would have seen this earlier! I…er…a friend is planning to get into cuba through central america in the next few months, but future trips will reference this!

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  • Heather Carreiro

    This is SO much easier to read than all the government websites describing how to do this. Thanks for the write up!

  • Traveling_mike

    Yes, it is leal to go to cuba, but man, I just dont want to feel any negative repercussions. Good thing after reading this I can consider Matadorabroad my legal council. Right? RIGHT???

    Looks like I’d better learn my Anderson Cooper impersonation…

  • Emma

    Thanks for the info! You would still end up having to fly through another country though, right?

    • Gabriela Garcia

      If you are travelling under the legal provisions, you won’t have to go through a third country. Most flights are out of Miami, New York, and Los Angeles.

  • John McAuliff

    If you go without a general or specific license, you have to travel via Cayman, Mexico, Jamaica, Canada, Panama, Dominican Republic or the Bahamas. Often even for legal travel that is a better less expensive route, especially if you are not originating in Miami.

    Global Exchange in San Francisco and the Center for Cuban Studies in New York offer a variety of legal group trips.

  • Iriana

    This is wonderful news, thank you!

    I’d love to see Cuba & meet the people, see the landscape. Perhaps very soon this will be easy for all of us who dream of visiting there.

  • Austin Travel

    But is it worth it? I find Cuba to be one of the most overhyped destinations on the planet.

  • Varona

    Hi! I just really wanted to make sure i am able to go to cuba legally. I want to go meet my mother in law in cuba but i was told that as an american i couldn’t. Do i fall under a general license? How can i go to cuba legally ? thanks!!

    • Gabriela Garcia

      Hey Varona! If your husband’s mother is in Cuba you should be able to go under a general license. You can seek out one of the travel agencies that specializes in Cuba travel, such as Marazul, and they can guide you through the whole process.

  • Jeff Engels

    Hi,Just wondering if going to Cuba to watch baseball and post stories on my Blog is a legit reason to go to Cuba? Willing to jump through some hoops but not endless paperwork. Who exactly do I contact? Thanks for this info…..Jeff

    • Julie


      Could be, depending upon whether you’re able to get a license as a journalist or under some other auspices. In either case, you’ll need to check with OFAC (Office of Foreign Asset Control), which handles travel visas.

  • Samantha Rodriguez

    where would i go to obtain these licenses? Also i am a freelancer in broadcast and would like to do my own article, and video piece of cuba to place on my website how would that work? Would i still be allowed to travel there?

    • Julie


      Google OFAC, Cuba, and license for information.

  • John McAuliff

    To update my previous comment:

    Congress failed us. The travel bill was approved by the Agriculture Committee in the House, but was never considered by the Foreign Affairs Committee. Republican control of the House makes legislative progress even less likely in the next two years.

    Our only hope for broader legal travel is for the President to announce regulatory reforms that were apparently approved last summer but postponed because of political pressure.

    People who want to encourage the White House to open travel can do so here

    or ask their Representative and Senators to contact the President here

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

  • TLove

    I have been to Cuba twice and have spent a total of 10 weeks there. I was there in 2003 legally and 2005 illegally. It’s not problem going illegally. It’s actually not illegal to be in Cuba it’s illegal to spend money and that’s impossible so you have to break the law.

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  • Lisa

    I am a veteran teacher seeking the opportunity to visit Cuba. This has been my lifetime dream to meet castro his brother Rual. I want to visit the sugar plantations, and enjoy all its history. How can I visit legally this summer 2011?

    • Marinvegas2

      lifetime dream??  meet the people whose live were affected by those monsters first..oh & I am so sure you wont even meet the Castros or even be in same province

    • Rob Wade

      They are dictators who would love nothing more than kill Americans. AND WHY DO YOU THINK CUBANS FLEE THAT COUNTRY TO COME HERE? IT’S BECAUSE OF THE CASTRO’S THAT YOU SEEM TO IDOLIZE!!! AND YOU ARE A TEACHER? GLAD MY KIDS WERE NEVER TAUGHT BY YOU. Cuba is a beautiful country but to say your life time dream is to meet those two. You need to see a shrink because that is just totally messed up.

    • Pablovillafane70

      Ignorantes todos jajajajajajaja!!!!!!!!

  • Lisa

    My husband and I have considered booking a cruise with Happy Cruise Lines. Our embarkation choices are Cancun and Havana. Even if we embark in Cancun, one of the ports the ship stops at is in Havana, Cuba. The ship would be there about 2 days and we would want to get off the ship and look around. As Americans, are we permitted to even take this cruise, and if so, what paperwork would we need besides passports? Thank you.

  • Snowbrush

    Thanks for the information. By the way, your “Center for Cuban Studies” link doesn’t appear to work.

  • tbird

    Study abroad in Cuba has to be hosted by an American institution or can you directly enroll in Cuban schools to study? Or can Americans study at the University of Havana on their own, for example?

  • Marinvegas2

    lifetime dream??  meet the people whose live were affected by those monsters first..oh & I am so sure you wont even meet the Castros or even be in same province

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