Most commonly recognised for its salsa music, Cuba is a Caribbean island which hosts a magnificent array of white beaches and diverse landscapes. If you’re planning on experiencing Cuba’s vibrant culture any time soon, then you’ll want to know how you can use your credit card there, to ensure your trip goes without a hitch.
Cuba is largely a cash culture, so you may find it easier to bring cash along with you for your travels. However, in more densely populated tourist areas you’re more likely to find ATMs and card machines. Visa is more likely to be accepted than Mastercard, and very few stores take American Express.
Cash machines in Cuba
Your first priority should be to contact your bank and confirm whether your card can be used in Cuba before you depart. Rules and regulations surrounding currency in Cuba are subject to frequent changes, so always double-check with your bank prior to travelling.
You are more likely to find ATMs in popular tourist areas, such as Havana and Trinidad. It’s smart to select your ATM carefully -only choose ones either located in banks or crowded areas. This means that if you encounter any issues, you are more likely to find someone who can help.
Due to the country’s outdated technology, most shops and restaurants are still not equipped to accept Mastercard transactions, which is why it’s a good idea to use Visa.
Cash in Cuba
Cuba operates a dual-currency system, whereby visitors use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) and locals use the Cuban peso (CUP). All cash carried must be in good condition with no tears, rips or markings, otherwise it may be refused.
Since card transactions remain limited, due to patchy Internet access, you should always carry cash to ensure you can make payments without any extra hassle or complications.
Card payment methods in Cuba
Due to the rules regarding currency and methods of payment often being subject to change, try not to rely on only one source of money. If possible, arrive prepared with a combination of cash and cards.
Cuba is in the process of transitioning from magstripes to chip-enabled cards, so it’s a good idea to use your chip-enabled card when possible for added protection and a higher level of security.
Is it safe to use my card in Cuba?
By exercising some caution when using your credit card in Cuba, you’ll have a relatively trouble-free experience.
Keep your PIN safe. Use one hand to enter the PIN and the other to shield it from prying eyes and hidden cameras.
Select ATMs with care. Try and stick to ATMs in banks and avoid using ones in the street when possible.
Watch out for “skimmers”. When installed in an ATM, a card skimmer works by stealing information from credit and debit cards. If you feel the card slot is not as smooth as it should be or if there’s a problem with the keypad, cancel your transaction and look for another ATM.
Keeping your credit card (physically) safe
Remain alert to street crime, especially where two or more people work in distracting victims before decamping with their valuables. Instances of theft at airports are not uncommon, so stay vigilant while arriving and departing. There have been numerous instances of thefts from hired cars so don’t leave your wallet or purse in a parked car. In some cases, thieves pose as police and ask to see wallets for identification purposes. In such a scenario, make sure you’re speaking with genuine police officers. It is very unlikely that a real officer will want to sift through your wallet.
Potential credit card fees
Credit card fees can leave a noticeable dent in your pocket when you’re travelling overseas, so know what you’re up against well in advance and choose a card with no or low fees.
Foreign transaction fees
British credit card issuers typically charge a fee equivalent to 1% to 3% of your transaction, so carefully review your card’s fine print to avoid statement surprises. Some cards designed for travel come with no foreign transaction fees, so this could be a good time to switch.
If a retailer offers to bill your credit card in sterling, dynamic currency conversion comes into play. While this might sound like a good deal, you’ll actually end up getting a worse exchange rate, and you might also end up paying currency conversion fees. Whenever you’re presented with an option, choose to pay in local currency.
Cash advance fees
Using your credit card to withdraw money from an ATM may not make sense unless it’s a bona fide emergency. Each time you withdraw funds from an ATM, you’re likely to pay a cash advance fee. Your APR for cash advances is also typically higher than your purchase APR, and you’ll typically get no grace period on interest — instead, you start paying interest immediately. Again, some cards designed for overseas spending will waive this fee.
The table below serves as an example of how much extra you may pay to use your credit card for in Cuba.
Additionally you can get an idea of costs by using these online currency conversion tools from Mastercard and Visa.
What is a cash advance fee?
A cash advance fee is calculated (and charged) when you withdraw cash from your credit card. It’s usually the greater of a flat fee or a percentage of the transaction. For example, “2.5% of the transaction, minimum £3.00”.
How to prepare before travelling to Cuba
Go with Visa. Carry a Visa credit card with you, as this network is most likely to be accepted in Cuba.
Keep your bank posted. Your bank may block your credit card if it detects suspicious activity such as unexpected overseas transactions. To make sure this does not happen to your card, let your bank know about your travel plans before you leave the UK.
Keep the emergency number handy. Know which numbers you’ll need to call if you end up losing your card or if you need an emergency replacement.
Know where you’ll get cash from. Consider using your debit card to withdraw cash from ATMs. If you need to exchange money, stick to banks or official money-exchange offices – possessing counterfeit money in Cuba is a serious crime. Try to avoid exchanging money at airports because of typically poor exchange rates.
Ask yourself these questions before you leave, so your spending in Cuba doesn’t hit any roadblocks.
Which cards will I take? Visa is more likely to be accepted than Mastercard, so Visa is your best choice. If you’re planning a trip, check out cards which give you complimentary airport lounge access. If you’re planning well in advance, consider earning air miles for your trip with a frequent flyer credit card.
Have I let my bank know? If you don’t inform your bank about your travel plans, you may end up with a temporarily suspended card.
What fees do I need to pay? If your existing cards come with foreign transaction fees, look for one that does not. Paying in sterling outside of the UK is likely to come with currency conversion fees.
How will I get cash? Using your debit card at an ATM is the simplest way to access your own money. You can carry cash and travellers’ cheques with you.
We use banks to take care of all our other financial needs, so surely we should use them when sending an international money transfer, right? Not necessarily. While major UK banks offer money transfer services, they typically present less competitive exchange rates coupled with high transfer fees.
Visa, with Mastercard next. American Express follows at a distant third.
There are no currency restrictions, although you’ll need to declare if you’re bringing in more than the equivalent of $5000.
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