Last updated: 06:00 PM ET, Fri July 29 2016

Want to Travel to Cuba? There Are Some Extra Rules You Need to Know.

Destination & Tourism | Michael Schottey | July 29, 2016

Want to Travel to Cuba? There Are Some Extra Rules You Need to Know.

Photo by Jason Leppert

It's easy to get excited about Cuba, but many travelers may be unaware of just how prepared they need to be. 

This isn't just grabbing extra sunscreen and bugspray for your tropical vacation — although, that's important — U.S.-to-Cuban travel carries with it the burden of being scrutinized at both ends of the journey thanks to governments whose relationship might be thawing, but is still less sunny than an afternoon in Havana. 

The hoops to jump through may be only nominally more difficult than traditional international travel, but it's important to note that they are new and different hoops than even veteran international travelers might be used to. For newer and inexperienced travelers, the process could be daunting, but it doesn't necessarily have to be.

Tourism to Cuba is technically still illegal under U.S. law. 

No, that is not a typo. 

The new Cuban travel guidelines have 12 legal reasons an American citizen can enter Cuba, but general tourism is not one of them. If all you're desiring is a chance to sample Arroz con Pollo, artisanal rum and a fine cigar, you may start to book your trip and find yourself rebuffed. 

On the other hand, the 12 legal reasons are objectively very general and broad. They are also objectively very subjective, and the burden of deciding who fits under those categories falls to the traveler alone. Is that scary in a way? Sure, because lying throughout the process is perjury and subject to penalty. However, when the categories include person-to-person educational travel, journalism and humanitarian projects, the hurdles to climb seem pretty low. 

Want to head to Cuba? Head to social media and find a Cuban or multiple Cubans who are willing to teach you about the country while you are there. Meeting new people and seeing the top sites? That's probably the exact reason you want to go. Cuba even has companies that set this sort of thing up professionally.

Or, in a social media age where everyone is a content creator, create your own blog or pitch other blogs on your trip to Cuba. "Freelance Journalism" is one of the subcategories of journalism according to the treasure, and that just means self-employed. One could quibble with being self-employed with zero income coming in, but everyone's got to start somewhere. 

 READ MORE: Air Travel To Cuba: Who Won and Who Lost? 

Humanitarian projects? My goodess, it's a gold mine. Even the most novice of Googlers should be able to find projects they could work on while down in Cuba. You can spend your entire trip on the beach if you spend some time cleaning it up. Want to take in the best cuisine? Spend an evening donating your time serving some if it to others. Is your Spanish rusty? You can get better at Spanish linking up teaching some English as a Second Language classes. 

Responsible tourism is all the rage anyway. 

There are other categories your travel may fit into, but none of them are heading down to a resort and enjoying yourself for a week and then returning to lie to customs. Plan ahead. Of course, the bonus for setting up some of these activities to legitimize your trip is that you'll make friends along the way. The next time you want to go to Cuba, visiting them is all you need to do!

Cuba also requires foreign travelers to have health insurance. If yours has lapsed for whatever reason, you can't go to Cuba. However, airlines are looking to bundle temporary health insurance right into tickets! Travel insurance companies also often bundle medical protection right into their plans. If someone isn't covered now, a host of ways to get covered already exist. It's just one more low hurdle to clear. 

 READ MORE: What's Next for Cuban Cruises? 

From there, the rules are just about over, but it's not quite as easy as hopping on a plane. U.S. cell phones aren't generally going to work in Cuba and neither are credit and debit cards linked to U.S. financial institutions. Internet access is hard to come by and Wi-Fi is next-to-nonexistent. No one who travels from the U.S. to Cuba will be as connected as when they left home. It's not just a culture shock, it could leave many unprepared. 

Again, plan ahead. 

An unlocked cellphone (even a disposable one) can become the home for a Cuban SIM card. American companies are increasing the availability of prepaid Cuba-ready cell phones as well. Still, those cell phones aren't going to have the data service Americans are accustomed to, and that means more preplanning your trip (no instant Yelp!) or depending on locals for advice—and fewer of them speak English compared to other tourism hotspots. 

Cash is a must, and exchanging those dollars into Cuban pesos is a first-things-first sort of activity upon entering the island. Thankfully, Cuba recently got rid of a 10 percent tax on the exchange of American dollars, but being without money in a foreign, semi-friendly country is not likely on anyone's to-do list.

In all, no one should be deterred from visiting Cuba, but the trip to Havana is going to take a little more than a trip to Seattle or Cancun. Go, absolutely go as soon as you can, but it takes just a little extra ambition to make sure your trip of a lifetime doesn't turn into a major headache. 

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