Cuba Travel Guidelines

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We’ve all been chomping at the bit waiting for the final piece of the new travel regulations puzzle: the Treasury Department guidelines. The guidelines were issued on Thursday, April 21. Now we have the full picture; let the travel begin.

First, let’s briefly review the White House’s January 14, 2011, announcement (see the press release here).  The President’s directive made changes to three aspects of U.S. policy toward Cuba: 1) “purposeful” travel (what we’ll be focusing on); 2) remittances; and 3) airport licenses for flights to Cuba. According to the directive, “these measures will increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information.”  Now let’s get down to brass tacks, for our purposes: “purposeful” travel (we put this in quotation marks because we believe that ALL travel to Cuba is purposeful).

For all intents and purposes, January’s directive touches on four of the twelve categories of travel codified in the 2000 Cuba Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act. The White House made executive changes in the policies that govern the twelve-(ish – there is also a category for agriculture-sales related travel) categories of travel, which is one of the few prerogatives that the executive still has over travel to Cuba. The four categories that the January 14 announcement addresses, and labels “purposeful,” are religious travel, academic travel, journalist travel and “people-to-people” travel.

First, two necessary definitions: 

  1. 1)    General license means that the traveler is permitted to travel to Cuba without prior permission from or notification of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). No paper license needed. You should keep records, though, to prove at a later date, if necessary, that you fit within this category.
  2. 2)    Specific license means that you must have prior permission (and a copy of an actual license) from OFAC in order to travel legally to Cuba. There are specific instructions on the OFAC website telling you how to apply. Also, LAWG is in the process of issuing a “How-to” brochure that will assist travelers to Cuba; watch for an email, and check our website,

Religious Travel

This change may be the most straight-forward. Religious organizations now have a general license to travel to Cuba. National, regional, and local churches and church offices may travel to Cuba to engage in a full-time schedule of religious activities without applying for a license from the Treasury Department. The guidelines give this example, “A religious organization wishes to organize a trip to Cuba for its members for the purpose of assisting in restoring a church building and attending services there.” Prior to this new directive, members of the religious organization would have had to present a physical license, issued to the organization, demonstrating their eligibility to travel to Cuba. This is an excellent change.

Academic Travel

The changes in the academic travel category are a bit more complicated, and multifaceted. Broadly, accredited academic institutions can now “sponsor travel to Cuba for course work for academic credit under a general license.” The specific mention of “for academic credit” is important since it replaces/omits the length requirement previously regulated. (Exchanges previously needed to be minimally ten weeks long, functionally restricting academic travel to institutions large enough and financially capable to sustain such a prolonged program in Cuba.) Further, under the new regulation, students can participate in educational exchanges sponsored by an accredited academic institution that is not their own. For example, students enrolled at the University of Alabama can participate in the University of North Carolina’s Cuba study abroad program – if the two institutions agree that the student will receive academic credit at the University of Alabama, the home university.

People-to-People Travel

This category of travel was effectively eliminated by President Bush in 2004, prior to the most recent White House directive, which makes it a pretty big deal. President Obama’s 2011 directive reestablishes “people-to-people” exchanges – albeit with a specific license. “People-to-people” travel is defined as “educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program when those exchanges take place under the auspices of an organization that sponsors and organizes such programs to promote people-to-people contact,” which means that an organization like a dance troupe can apply for a general license to perform with a Cuban dance troupe in a performance in Havana. Or, a minor league baseball team can get a license to go to Cuba to play against a Cuban club team.

Journalistic Travel

The directive does not yet layout specifics about this change, but mention that specific licenses will be granted to a “greater scope of journalistic activities.”

The travel ban is still in place, but now so many more of us can travel to Cuba, “legally.” Let’s start rekindling the bonds that have historically existed between the peoples of the United States and Cuba, on a massive scale. We’ll send you more details on how to do this, and we’ll have ideas on ways you will be able to take advantage of this new opening. We know that it is not everything we wanted; we will continue working toward the ability for ALL U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba whenever we want, without any U.S. government restrictions. Traveling now, under the new regulations, will hasten that day as more and more U.S. citizens experience Cuba and return home to work energetically for the change we want.