After nearly a half-century ban, in 2009, the Cuban ban on American travelers visiting the island nation was partially lifted, and 2 years later in 2011, restrictions were eased once more — hooray!
Home of classic American cars, jaw-dropping European architecture, the best rum in the world, and the most idyllic beaches you can imagine, for Americans, Cuba has been that cookie in a jar just out of reach for a long time.
That we can now visit under certain circumstances is amazing, but there are still certain restrictions in place, namely, the use of credit cards.
Let’s discuss the topic in greater detail.
Cuba & Cash
Before we get into any official restrictions, you should know that Cuba is largely a cash culture, by which I mean that the locals will almost always pay for goods and services using cash.
In light of this, I’d always recommend taking a sensible amount of cash with you on your days and nights out, especially if you’re visiting the more thinly populated rural areas.
The currency in Cuba is known as the Cuban peso, which exchanges for the dollar at a ratio of about 23.99:1.
Now, I know what you’re thinking… The math involved with this exchange rate is bonkers — and you’re completely right.
You don’t want to spend your holiday unsure of what you’re spending, but I’ve got some fantastic news for you.
Tourists in Cuba don’t use the same currency as the locals! When you exchange your dollars, you’ll be given CUC (convertible pesos) in return.
Each CUC is worth a single dollar, balancing the exchange rate perfectly — phew!
However, just because using cash is the done thing in Cuba, doesn’t mean you can’t whip out the plastic on occasion, but such an act will depend on a few factors.
A Currency Exchange Hack
Before you go handing your notes over willy-nilly, you should know that there’s an additional 10% fee for the exchange of American dollars for CUC, which catches many a wanderer out.
The trick here is to exchange your US dollars for another currency first, such as Canadian dollars or even euros, then you can convert that currency into CUC with a massively reduced fee.
One more bit of advice before we move on, be sure to make the exchange in the airport or bank of Havana, as it could take a fairly long time in some of the rural establishments.
What’s The Credit Card Situation For Tourists In Cuba?
The going rule is that, yes, you can indeed use credit cards in Cuba, but not all of them.
Any plastic issued by an American company, i.e. American Express or Diner’s Club, will be out of the question.
The situation is getting better with time, and Cuba has even started doing business with some US banks, namely, Florida local Stonegate Bank.
As such, if you have a Stonegate card, you may well be able to use that.
VISA and MasterCard are also accepted, but again, that Cuban cash culture means many businesses simply may not be ready to do business with cards.
Granted, the focus on cash has eased a little since the pandemic in an attempt to bring infection rates down, but don’t take it as a given that every establishment will have a card machine.
Where Is Card Acceptance Most Likely?
Larger establishments such as hotels and those tied to tourist attractions are most likely to accept a valid credit card, so you can more or less rule out using plastic in the more out-of-the-way locations in Cuba.
Although it is more difficult for Americans to use credit cards on the island, it’s actually more of a widespread thing that affects visitors from any nation — the financial infrastructure of Cuba is something of a work in progress.
Beware The Transaction Fee
If you’re lucky enough to find plenty of businesses that will accept your plastic, bear in mind that for every transaction, there will be a 3% fee, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but over the course of an entire holiday paid for by card, it can get pretty steep.
Are There ATMs In Cuba?
If you’re planning on using your cards in Cuba, you’re almost certainly going to end up needing cash for the aforementioned reasons, which means you’re going to have to try and find some ATMs.
Thankfully, there are a few ATMs dotted about in Cuba, but they’re almost exclusively scattered around the larger cities, so you may have to plan a trip into town to visit the money machine.
Before you do, though, it’s fairly common knowledge that the ATMs Cuba does have aren’t the most reliable machines, so don’t expect flawless functionality.
Beware The Transaction Fee… Again!
Yep, the 3% transaction fee we discussed a moment ago also applies to cash withdrawals using your plastic, so be sure to work out what you’ll need for an extended period on the island and take it out all at once.
Of course, those who don’t like carrying larger sums of cash on their person will most likely rather pay multiple 3% transaction fees than risk it, but Cuba is generally seen as a safe location.
There are pickpockets about in the big cities and the most popular tourist zones, but as long as you carry your funds in a secure manner, that shouldn’t be an issue.
Is it possible to use credit cards in Cuba?
Well, it’s tricky for American tourists, but yes, it is sometimes possible, and things are getting better in the way of financial infrastructure in Cuba every year.
But if you really want a trouble-free time in the country, my advice is to stick with cash for the most part.
Not only will every business accept CUC, but the exchange rate is easy to understand and the locals will appreciate you respecting their cash culture.
If you find yourself in a sticky situation with limited or no funds, be sure to visit the American embassy in Havana.
Don’t be embarrassed to ask for assistance, as they deal with stranded tourists all the time, as does the British embassy.
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