Contributed by: Sarah Arizaga
The currency situation in Cuba leaves even veteran travelers mystified. Prior to the pandemic, we had to navigate a dual currency system with two types of pesos, CUC and CUP. Bizarrely, by unifying the currencies, Cuba’s economy has gotten even more confusing! Don’t worry, we’ve got your back. Here are five easy tips for handling money in Cuba.
1. Bring Euros or USD
Taxis, restaurants, casa particulares, galleries, and privately owned shops will gladly accept EUR and USD. Believe it or not, some places in Cuba won’t even accept CUP. Rarely will you find a place that doesn’t accept foreign currency, but there are a couple of instances where that might be the case. If you’re in an establishment that seems like it’s primarily for locals, just ask in advance what currencies they accept.
There tend to be regional differences in which currencies are preferred, so if you’re traveling outside of major tourist areas, it’s best to have a mix of CUP and foreign money.
Pro Tip - EUR and USD are the easiest to use, but GBP is usually accepted. As for CAD, it mainly works in resort towns like Varadero. If you have MXN or other officially accepted currencies, finding businesses that accept them may be difficult, so you are limited to exchanging them for CUP. Many travelers report that they wished they had changed to EUR or USD before coming to Cuba.
2. Pack a Debit or Credit Card Too
State-owned businesses, like medical facilities, grocery stores, hotels, tourist offices, and restaurants, tend to be cashless. Making purchases at these places is usually avoidable, but if you bring your cards, you’ll at least have the option. Credit cards affiliated with US banks rarely work, except when the transactions are processed in a third country like Spain or Canada. You can buy an MLC (see glossary below) pre-paid debit card at any CADECA exchange house as an extra option, but most tourists never have a need to use one.
Pre-paid debit cards come in denominations of US$50-$1000 and can be purchased with any acceptable currency except USD. There is a US$5 charge for these cards; they are non-refundable, but you have two years to use them.
3. Know the Value of a Dollar
Cuba has two exchange rates: official and informal (aka black market). Understanding these rates is essential, as there's a significant difference.
For example, at the time of this writing, per each Euro, you'll get 126 CUP at the official rate and 205 CUP at the black market rate—a difference of 79 CUP per Euro.
For each USD, you'll get 110 CUP at the official rate and 200 CUP on the black market—a 90 CUP per dollar difference. USD cash is officially 120CUP, but you pay an 8% conversion fee instead of the 2% fee charged when exchanging EUR or any other currency.
The government sets official rates, and you can find them on the CADECA website. For informal rates, check out the daily rate at El Toque or ask your casa staff or guide. But remember, supply and demand dictate rates, so what you exchange may vary.
Just to add to the confusion, privately owned restaurants and other businesses set their own exchange rates, which can be as low as the official rate of 120CUP, but usually won’t be as high as the rate reported on El Toque. If this matters to you, ask in advance. Since businesses often provide change in CUP when you pay in foreign currency, your change will be subject to the restaurant’s rate too.
4. For Simplicity, Avoid CUP
The currently insane inflation levels mean using CUP can be cumbersome and mentally taxing. Carrying around a stack of bills so thick your wallet won't close is intimidating, as is the amount of counting involved in paying a restaurant bill. You must also spend it so you aren't left with CUP to exchange. That's why some travelers choose to pay in foreign currency; it is more convenient for them, even though they end up paying more than if they exchange money in the black market.
To illustrate the difference, let’s say that you order the 1400CUP fish entrée at the excellent restaurant El del Frente in Old Havana. You are paying in USD.
Worst Case Scenario: The restaurant offers the official rate of 120 CUP, so the entrée costs US$11.67
Common Scenario: The restaurant offers the rate of 170 CUP, so the entrée costs US$8.24
Best Case Scenario: The restaurant offers the informal rate of 200 CUP, so the entrée costs US$7.00
Depending on what you are used to paying back home, the convenience could outweigh the risk of paying the higher price.
You should have a little CUP just in case (it’s useful for tipping amounts less than $5), but you will accumulate it by getting change in CUP. In non-touristy cities and towns, it’s more important to have the local currency.
Pro Tip - Organize your CUP into bundles of 1,000, it will make it easier to pay. You can wrap one bill around each bundle to keep them separated.
5. Buy CUP from Trusted Sources
If you prefer to pay the best price while you’re in Cuba, you will need to buy CUP in the informal market. It's common and mainly harmless, but technically not legal, so proceed with caution. The safest bet? Exchange through a casa particular, professional guide, restaurant staff or trusted local contact. Avoid street solicitations, and don't be ashamed to stick with foreign currency if the black market isn't for you. Remember, the rate you get is based on what you are offered and are willing to accept, not posted rates.
With these five tips, you’ll avoid many money blunders in Cuba and be able to choose a money strategy right for you. However, the money situation is constantly changing and it helps to have a local guide to give you the most current advice.
Glossary of Cuban Money Terms
CUP- Cuban Peso, the only official currency in Cuba. CUP has no value outside of Cuba, which is why it’s not considered a “hard currency”.
CUC- Cuban Convertible Peso. Cuba’s former second currency, but as of 2021 the CUC was taken out of circulation.
MLC- Moneda Libremente Convertible (Freely Convertible Money) aka “hard currency”. It usually means EUR & USD for tourists, but it could also be any other exchangeable currency. If you see an exchange rate for MLC, it trades like its own currency for locals via electronic transfers.
MLC Card- Any credit/debit card linked to an account backed by hard currency (e.g. EUR, USD, GBP, CAD, etc.). All foreign cards are considered MLC cards.
CADECA- Exchange houses throughout Cuba, government-operated.
Official Rate- The exchange rate offered in CADECAs, ATMs, Banks, Hotels, and state-run entities. This rate is static and set by the government, not the market.
Informal Rate- The exchange rate you get when you trade with individuals or private businesses instead of state institutions. Also known as the black market or the street rate. Supply and demand set this rate, and it fluctuates daily.