Cuba is becoming an increasingly popular travel destination for Americans — especially with recently relaxed sanctions that allow easier travel on popular airlines.
If you’re headed to the island nation of Cuba from the US, you’ll need to account for how you’ll get money when you need it. The US government now tentatively allows Americans to pay with credit cards in Cuba, but it could be difficult to find merchants that accept this method of payment.
Mastercard lifted its block on card transactions in Cuba on March 1, 2017, but the country’s outdated technology means that not many merchants are set up to accept it.
Stonegate Bank is the one US bank that services Cuba. Along with Natbank and Banco Popular of Puerto Rico, Stonegate is authorized by the Central Bank of the Republic of Cuba and the US Office of Foreign Assets Control to provide Mastercard-branded credit and debit cards that are valid in Cuba.
Cards issued by non-American banks
If your credit card is issued by a non-American bank, ask your card provider if it’ll work in Cuba. Visa credit and debit cards are typically accepted by tour operators, and you may be able use them to pay with large retailers. You can also use your Visa card to withdraw funds from an ATM, a bank or a government exchange facility — also called a Cadeca. Mastercard is not accepted at ATMs in Cuba, although can you use your card to withdraw money from a bank or a Cadeca.
While your card might find takers at big hotels and tour operators, card transactions remain limited due to patchy Internet access.
Using cash in Cuba
Don’t expect US dollars to be legal tender in Cuba. If you exchange US dollars in the country, you’ll often pay 10% commission to the government. Cuba operates a dual-currency system, wherein locals use the Cuban peso (CUP) and visitors use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC).
The CUC’s value is less than the CUP’s value. If you’re carrying banknotes in US dollars or any other currency, make sure they’re in good condition: Merchants can refuse to accept dollars with markings, rips or even slight tears. Keep in mind that if you’re entering Cuba with more than $5,000, you’ll need to declare it on your arrival.
Magstripe and chip credit cards
If your credit card is accepted in Cuba, it won’t matter whether it’s a magstripe or chip card. Cuba, like the US, is currently transitioning from magstripes to chip-enabled cards. Even though both are accepted, if you have a choice, use a chip-enabled card for its added protection.
Can I use my chip-and-signature card in Cuba?
Yes. You’ll need to enter your PIN only if you’re using your card to withdraw money from an ATM. In all other instances, you’ll simply sign for your purchase.
Potential credit card fees in Cuba
When using a credit card in Cuba, know how much you’ll need to pay in fees to your provider. Two fees you’ll typically face with credit card transactions are those for foreign transactions and currency conversions.
Foreign transaction fees
If you have an American credit card, prepare to pay up to 3% of every international transaction in foreign transaction fees. One card option that comes with no foreign transaction fees is Stonegate Bank’s World Elite Mastercard.
Currency conversion fees
If a merchant asks whether you’d like to be billed in your local currency — American dollars, euros or pounds — decline the offer. When your card is billed in your home currency by an overseas business, you can pay sometimes high dynamic currency conversion fees. There’s also a good chance you’ll get less-than-favorable exchange rates on top of these fees.
Should I use my card to get cash?
Use your credit card to get a cash advance only if it’s an emergency. Your cash advance APR is usually higher than your purchase APR, and you’ll also pay a cash advance fee. See the table below for an indication of how much your cash advance in Cuba could cost.
Is it safe to use my credit card in Cuba?
Using your credit card in Cuba is safe, although you’ll want to exercise some caution.
- Safeguard your PIN. When you’re entering your PIN, use one hand to shield the keypad for protection against hidden cameras and prying eyes.
- Select ATMs with care. Choose ATMs that are located in banks or crowded areas.
- Watch out for skimmers. If you think there’s a problem with an ATM slot or its keypad, don’t use it. Someone might have installed a credit card skimmer.
Keeping your credit card (physically) safe
Old Havana is infamous for its share of pickpockets and bag-snatchers, and you also need to watch out on public transport, nightclubs and tourist attractions. Beware of misdirection schemes, where one person distracts you while another takes off with your wallet, bag or purse.
How to prepare before traveling to Cuba
- Check with your bank. Ask your bank if you can use your card in Cuba before you depart. Visa is more widely accepted than Mastercard, with very few merchants set up to take American Express.
- Get a card with no foreign transaction fees. Even though regulations are now relaxed, you won’t find many American banks offering cards for use in Cuba. Fortunately, you can manage to find a card with no foreign transaction fees.
- Inform your bank of your travels. Banks are always on the lookout for fraudulent transactions. If your card provider sees a transaction that’s unusual for your spending, it can temporarily block your card.
- Carry emergency numbers. You never know when you might end up losing your card or requiring a replacement, so write down your provider’s numbers just in case.
- Plan where you’ll get money from. If you’re headed to Cuba from the US, you’ll need access to cash. To exchange currency, stick to banks, government exchange houses and large hotels to avoid ending up with counterfeit currency.
Ask yourself a few simple questions before you leave for Cuba to avoid unnecessary travel headaches.
- Which card should I take? Call your providers to learn which of your cards will work in Cuba. If you don’t have a card that’s accepted, consider getting a new one.
- Did I let my bank know of my travels? Keep your bank in the loop on your travel dates to avoid unexpected blocks on your card.
- What fees will I need to pay? Not all credit cards come with the same foreign transaction and currency conversion fees, so confirm what you could pay in advance.
- What’s my source of cash? You’ll need access to cash throughout your stay in Cuba, so it’s important to identify where you can get it when you need it.
While traveling to the Pearl of Antilles — and paying for your travels while there — can still be complicated for Americans, with some planning and precaution, you can still explore and enjoy Cuba without worry.