OFAC Authorized Licenses for “Tourist” Travel

You’ve heard that tourist travel is illegal to Cuba, and that’s true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t vacation in Cuba. You just have to fit your “tourist” travel under a general license so the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the embargo enforcers, know that your time in Cuba has a “meaningful” purpose.

The two most familiar and applicable general license categories for travel were People to People (P2P) and Support for the Cuban People (SCP).   As of June 5, 2019, P2P travel is eliminated, so the best category for most travelers will be SCP.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that none of the 12 general license categories require approval from the OFAC or filing any kind of permit application. It is self-certification: you state your category to whoever asks (e.g. airline, travel provider, cruise company, US border agent, etc.), and then make sure you have trip documentation to support that you spent your time as allowed.

For all general license categories, you still need a visa which is the Cuban government’s requirement for all tourists. A tourist visa will be fine for most people, you can get it at the airport.    

The best general license category under the Trump rules is SCP, read on to find out how to travel under this category. Or you can read about the other categories.

General License for Support for the Cuban People (SCP) (515.574)

This is the best category for tourists taking tours, cruises, or just flying solo. Here are the summarized requirements:

1. Use privately owned businesses (e.g. Cuban Bed & Breakfasts private restaurants, etc.) As of September 24, 2020 you are not permitted to stay in hotels. Here is the list of prohibited accommodations, but you will find that all of Cuba's hotels (and a few casas particulares) are on the list. 

2. Maintain a full schedule (considered 6-8 hour daily, or 40 hours per week) of meaningful interactions that:

"Enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba"

These activities are similar to what you would do on a P2P tour. Here are some suggestions that industry-wide are considered acceptable:

  • Supporting local artists by visiting galleries and/or purchasing art
  • Conversing with your hosts at your casa particular
  • Volunteering
  • Taking lessons (dance, language, music, sport, etc)
  •  Shopping in privately owned businesses
  •  Eating at privately owned restaurants
  •  Taking guided cultural/historical tours

3. Avoid transactions with Cuban Government entities on this Prohibited List. For tourists the most important entities to avoid are the hotels and shops listed. As explained above, hotels are now prohibited for US travelers.

4. Document your activities and transactions in a ledger or travel journal and maintain the records and receipts for 5 years

With SCP you are not required to be on a tour, but it is highly recommended because time spent with our local tour guides counts towards “meaningful interaction” and “promoting independence”.  A guide will help you engage more with the culture and people and avoid the hassles and frustrations that independent travelers face. Cuba is safe, but by no means easy. Besides, even our customers who insist they “not-a-tour-person” say our tours are really fun!

That’s it! Do all this and you’re traveling legally to Cuba. While having a signed paper affidavit is not a requirement, we recommend you bring one just in case, because airlines agents and border agents who aren’t experienced in Cuba travel may ask to see one. If you are on one of our tours we will provide you with an affidavit, otherwise if your travel provider (airlines, cruise company, etc) hasn’t given you one, you can just Google “Cuba Travel Affidavit” and download one.

Don’t expect any problems leaving or returning to the U.S. very few people are ever questioned about their trip to Cuba or their general license. If these rules start being enforced it will be done by the Office of Foreign Assets Control after you are back home, not by Customs and Border Patrol. The punishment for violation, which hasn’t been levied in many years, is a fine. You will not be prohibited from entering the US, put in jail, or have your passport revoked.  See real comments from our travelers about their experience returning to the U.S. from Cuba and passing through U.S. border security.

Want to go straight to the source? Read the OFAC's examples of SCP activities and the OFAC FAQ

General License for People to People (P2P) (515.565 b)

This category was a subset of the general license for Educational Activities (515.565) to allow for non-academic educational travel and was eliminated as of June 5, 2019 .

How to Travel with a General License

SCP is the best category for general tourists, but if you have a special purpose for being in Cuba one of the other 12 categories may be best for you. Many people think educational is an easy category to comply with but it is actually quite restrictive, so make sure you understand the requirements of the license you select.

Which ever category you choose, you must not have transactions with any of these prohibited entities or stay in hotels. Check to make sure your casa particular is not included on this prohibited accommodations list.

Remember, for a general license you DO NOT submit an application to a government agency. You will not have a permit or paper license, it’s self-certification and here is how to do it:

Step 1: Pick Your Category

Here are most of the categories of legal Cuba travel for the general license, ordered from most used to least used. For a full description of the categories visit the OFAC website.

  1. Support for the Cuban people by human rights organizations, independent organizations, individuals, and NGOs. This is the category that allows individuals to travel legally, as long as they use private businesses and maintain a full schedule of meaningful activities (§515.574). See previous section for this category.
  2. Educational activities. Section (a) is for college, university and secondary school faculty, staff, students, and chaperones. Academic research specifically relating to Cuba and for the purpose of a graduate or undergraduate degree. Faculty and staff can visit Cuba independently to research and prepare for student trips. Note: This generally requires a formal course of study, so just taking Spanish lessons wouldn't qualify. Section (b) is for non-academic people to people travel on chaperoned group tours (§515.565).  Subcategory (b) People to People is eliminated as of June 5, 2019.
  3. Religious organizations, and their members and staff who are engaging in a full-schedule of religious activities (§515.566)
  4. Professional research or attending professional meetings directly relating to the traveler’s profession, professional background, or area of expertise. Professional research can include making a documentary film. (§515.564). As of September 24, 2020 Professional meetings general license authorization is eliminated and you must apply for a Specific License for this purpose.
  5. Journalistic activities for journalists who are employed by news reporting organizations or supporting broadcast or technical personnel or freelance journalist with a record of previous experience who is working on a journalistic project. ( §515.563)
  6. Visiting a relative or family member in Cuba, or the relative of someone you live with as family, or accompanying a close family member that is traveling under §515.562 (official government business), §515.563 (journalistic activity), §515.564(a) (professional research), §515.565(a)(1) through (4) and (6) (educational activities), §515.566 (religious activities), §515.575 (humanitarian projects), or §515.576 (activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes) (§515.561)
  7. Humanitarian projects such as medical or health related projects, construction projects, environmental projects, formal or non-formal educational training, etc. (§515.575)
  8. Participation in public performances, clinics, workshops, exhibitions, and athletic and other competitions. (§515.567). As of September 24, 2020 only amateur and semi-professional international sports federation competitions are permitted under the general license. For all other activities you must apply for a Specific License 
  9. Business visits for exportation and importation of telecommunications and internet hardware and services, and exportation of agricultural products. (§515.545)
  10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes. (§ 515.576)
  11. Official business of government employees and organizations (§515.562)

Step 2: Create Your License

Your “license” is just your statement of which category you are traveling under. If you are on one of our multi-day group tours we will provide you with an affidavit. If not, use an affidavit that your airline, visa service, or tour company provides, pull one from online, or just create a letter with the following information:

  • Dates of travel
  • High level purpose of travel
  • Specific category of general license (use the code citation)
  • Signature and date 

Each individual in your party (even children!) must qualify for a general license on their own.

Step 3: Document Your Travel

OFAC requires that you maintain specific records of your travel to Cuba, regardless of whether you are traveling under a license or not, and to keep these records for 5 years in the (highly unlikely!) event that OFAC requests to see them. Hang on to any receipts and documents relating to transactions or purchases for your trip to Cuba, along with any itineraries and other support for your purpose for travel.

Step 4: Return to the US

You don't need to worry about showing your license anywhere except the US when returning from your trip. Other countries aren't in the practice of enforcing the US travel embargo, so don't expect anyone in Cuba, Mexico, Canada, etc. to have any idea of what you're talking about if you mention the license. You only need to show your license if an official asks to see it. At present the level of interrogation of travelers arriving from Cuba appears to be quite low. Most travelers are either not asked any questions, or are waived through after stating their reason of travel. Check our travelers comments on their experience arriving back to the U.S.. Nevertheless Trump has told OFAC to start enforcing these regulations so make sure you have these documents in your files for 5 years. If you received a passport stamp in Cuba, don't worry- you are traveling legally!

Check out the OFAC website for more information.

Traveling on an individual General License?  Our regular group tours offer plenty of freedom for you to pursue your general license activities while providing a foundation for a hassle-free travel. Whether you travel independently or on one of our tours we can provide, transportation, accommodations, tour guide services, Santiago day tours, and Havana day tours, to make your trip to Cuba easier and more enjoyable.