How to Deal With Money When You’re Traveling to Cuba

A guide to making sure you have enough of your own soft power in Cuba and understanding how it's being converted.  

So you’re going to Cuba! Here’s exactly what you need to do to make sure you have the right currency to pay for all those Mojitos and vintage taxi rides. (And no, U.S. credit cards don’t work there.) In addition to harmonious living situations, here at RoomZoom team we’re also fans of increased trade, opportunity, and dialogue with countries where human rights and personal freedoms aren’t what we enjoy here in the U.S. Traveling to Cuba, talking with locals, sharing respective experiences, and most of all, spending cold hard cash is an effective way to exert a bit of pressure on the government there to allow Cubans more freedom in terms of expression, economic opportunity, and human rights.

So on with it.

What to know:

1. Understand that Cuba has two currencies, CUC (the CUC say “Convertible” on them) and plan old Cuban pesos. Read up on the dual currency system because it’s a) interesting, b) a bit confounding and c) problematic for those Cubans who only are paid in pesos by the government and have difficulty obtaining CUC. In brief, pesos are how the government pays all employees of the state, everyone from doctors to engineers to veterinarians, and one Cuban peso is worth about 4 cents USD. It’s possible to buy some things–mostly food–very very cheaply in pesos. Otherwise, as a tourist you’ll be paying for most things with CUC.)

2. The value of CUC is pegged to USD and so while the exchange rate is technically 1:1 it doesn’t work out that way when you change USD into CUC because Cuba exacts an automatic 10% deduction on all USD changed within Cuba. On top of that, you’re paying the 2% or 3% charge for changing the money over. As of December 2016, you’ll get about .88 CUC for every dollar you change.

3. When all is said and done, unless you’re shopping at a state-run food store or a local restaurant (called paladares) or juice stand in pesos, you’re paying for most things in CUC and prices are very similar to what you’d pay for things in the U.S.

4. Cash is king. Airports and fancy hotels are likely the only places where credit cards will work and even then, U.S. credit cards won’t work.

5. Foreigners cannot receive Western Union payments in Cuba.

6. The infamous “exit tax” is now included in the price of your airline ticket so you won’t be stranded at the airport as many foreigners have been in the past.

7. However, if you miss your flight home and don’t have extra cash on you, you may be stranded unless you have a wealthy Cuban friend to lend you the money to buy a new flight. So, consider bringing a cache of cash you don’t plan to spend that could get you out of such a jam.

8. You can ask for change from CUC in pesos if you’ll be using local transportation ( a city bus) or shopping at a food store or restaurant that charges in pesos. Just make sure you have a handle on the exchange rate and understand that someone might look at you crazy when you tell them you want to trade your CUC for their pesos.

9. Money exchange houses may not be open on the weekends or outside regular business hours so change your money accordingly.

A comparison:

It’s confusing because the CUC also say “peso” on them.

Three Cuban pesos, the currency with which the state pays wages.

What to do:

1. Budget the same amount of money you’d be spending per day in a major U.S. city. If you’re traveling from New York plan on spending approximately what you’d spend here and of course factor in what hotels or transportation you’ll have to pay for in cash once you arrive.

2. Don’t both changing U.S. dollars for Canadian ones before you go, the Canadian exchange rate is low enough and since you’ll end up changing twice, you won’t be saving any money by technically avoiding the 10% tax on USD.

3. If the Euro happens to be strong against the dollar when you travel you could experiment with changing some of your USD into Euros before you leave. Tally the initial USD and the final CUC you get for that chunk of cash against the straight USD : CUC conversion after the 10% tax to compare if it was worth it to place Euros in the middle of your conversion to CUC and if it’s much better when you go, please let us know at!

4. You can change cash at the airport when you arrive for a similar exchange rate than you’ll get at a bank or money exchange in whatever city you’re in.

5. Don’t change all your cash at once since you may not need it all and changing it back is so not worth it considering you’ll be paying another exchange charge.

6. If you really want to avoid the 10% automatic deduction on your USD:

There’s a guy in Havana who will purportedly change USD for you at $1 to .95 CUC. We didn’t do it but we had a friend who did, email for his number if you want it.
If you’ll be in Cuba for a long duration of time: you can also open a Canadian bank account and take cash in CUC out of ATMs in Havana. Just make sure you know where the ATMs are, there don’t seem to be many. If you’ll be in a city other than Havana research the ATM situation beforehand. 

7. If you have extra cash, unwanted electronics, or other valuables at the end of your trip, find someone to give them to. Cubans are quite proud but it’s hard enough to obtain certain things (anything from the West) that most people will readily accept gifts that make their lives easier or they can sell on the black market.

More tips on Cuban travel to come in the next few weeks!