Travel Tips: Can Americans Use Debit or Credit Cards While Visiting Cuba?

I often fantasize about the jobs I’d hold in alternate realities. Singer. Hair stylist. Travel Agent. I can’t sing a song that anybody would ever really say was worth listening to, and my bangs are terminally crooked despite the fact that I’ve been hacking them off myself for two decades now, but I do still confidently maintain that I’d make a fantastic travel agent.

A woman I know is planning a trip to Cuba later this month. I’m jealous, but I’m not above a little vicarious travel-planning, so when she asked me what I knew about currency and credit cards in the country, I decided to do some digging. Here’s what I learned.

Keep in mind that this information is current as of November 2015 … but things are changing fast! If you’ve visited Cuba recently, I’d love to hear what your experience was. How did you pay for things? Did you track down any functioning ATMs? Any amendments or caveats? Comment below, please!

Courtesy Photo

Can North Americans use plastic while vacationing in Cuba? The short answer: Possibly, but probably not. As with a lot of things in this country, the situation is … complex.

Things are moving forward as far as agreements between American and Cuban banks, and a few credit card companies were crowing about pending agreements with Cuban banks last spring, but it appears that we’re not there quite yet.

I’ve found some websites that claim you can use debit and credit cards, but others insist that Cuba remains a total cash economy, with very few places accepting plastic. Bottom line, you are taking a gamble by relying on cards of any kind, and it would be very bad to get there with plastic in hand only to find out that it is useless. That said, it doesn’t hurt to bring along a credit or debit card just in case, but expect for it not to be much use, even if your bank tells you it will work. (I’ve found that American banking institutions are often overly optimistic in assessing the infrastructure of less developed countries! There’s what’s true in theory, and there’s what’s true on the ground, and the twain don’t always meet… )

It looks to me like your best bet is going to be to bring a large amount of Euros, which you can get either at your bank (some but not all local branches offer this service) or right at the airport using your debit card or cash. (Note that if you are taking off from your home airport early in the morning, the exchange booth will probably not be open, so plan ahead if this is the case.)

Yes, this requires that you convert your money twice, first from dollars to Euros, then from Euros to Cuban pesos, but American Dollars get an absolutely awful rate from what I can see, so it’s still a better deal.

When you arrive at the airport in Havana, you can exchange your Euros for the Cuban tourist currency known as the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC/CUP. You might consider getting some regular Cuban pesos (MN) as well, but you likely won’t be using them much as a tourist. You’ll want to do the exchange in one lump transaction, before you exit the security area; rates will likely be worse in the cities and definitely worse if you go through any sort of street money changer),

As for how to deal with schlepping around large amounts of cold, hard cash, the old caveats apply: on your way there, carry the majority of the cash in a money belt, with an extra $100 or so squirreled away somewhere in your luggage. After you’ve gotten to the airport and exchanged your money, put it right back in your money belt and guard it with your life until you get to your place of lodging. Then, right away, I’d pick a couple of spots to stash it. Find a spot or two in your room, one or two spots in your luggage, and keep a chunk of it always on your person. Wearing the money belt at all times might be overkill, but at least find a good secure hidey hole deep in your purse. Your host might offer a safe of some kind for secure storage, but keep in mind that a safe is only as secure as the people who have access to it, who in this case are strangers living through difficult times in a poor country. It might be best to store passports, a small of cash, and not much else there if a safe is indeed, available.

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Here’s what the Travel Bible (AKA Lonely Planet) has to say about currency in Cuba (info up to date as of October 2015):

“As of early 2015, two currencies were still circulating in Cuba: convertible pesos (CUC$) and Cuban pesos (referred to as moneda nacional, abbreviated MN$). Most things tourists pay for are in convertibles (eg accommodation, rental cars, bus tickets, museum admission and internet access). At the time of writing, Cuban pesos were selling at 25 to one convertible, and while there are many things you can’t buy with moneda nacional, using them on certain occasions means you’ll see a bigger slice of authentic Cuba.

The best currencies to bring to Cuba are euros, Canadian dollars or pounds sterling. The worst is US dollars, for which you will be penalized with a 10% fee (on top of the normal commission) when you buy convertibles (CUC$). “

Other Tips:

  • ATMs are hard to come by, so bring as much cash as you think you’ll need, or even better, just a bit more.
  • The exchange rate is poor if you have to change money back, so it is wise to create a somewhat-detailed budget.
  • When receiving your change after a purchase or transaction, make sure are receiving back the same type of peso you paid in! (CUC vs. MN)
  • Western Unions do appear to be available if you do get into a pinch and end up needing more money wired to you fast.
  • As an aside, sounds like cell phones don’t work down there; they just don’t have the towers up and running yet. Likewise, Internet is generally still pretty spotty, but you should be able to access decent Internet at any number of hotels on a per-hour basis. Not sure if it will be WiFi or just the old-style Internet Café type access, where you use one of their computers to do your business.Courtesy Photo

Sources / Further Reading about Cash and Cost in Cuba:

http://www.foxbusiness.com/markets/2015/10/15/headed-to-cuba-bring-cash/

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/cuba/money-costs

http://www.oregonlive.com/travel/index.ssf/2015/10/cuba_opens_to_american_tourist.html

http://thesophisticatedlife.com/blog/an-americans-travel-guide-for-cuba-part-1/

http://www.bestcubatravelguide.com/blog/

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