Many tourists do visit Cuba, but many of them, especially if they are US citizens, do so illegally. Because of the longstanding trade embargo with Cuba, regular visits to the island by the average citizen are not allowable under US law. In fact, travel agents inside the US cannot legally make travel plans that include flights to Cuba.
When people do travel to Cuba, they make arrangements with an airline in a different country, usually the Bahamas or Mexico. Some people also fly into Canada and then on to Cuba. Though it is against the law in most cases for a US citizen to travel to the country, the law is rarely enforced. If it were enforced, the estimated 15,000 or more illegal trips each year would garner a lot of revenue for the government. Theoretically, one can be charged $250,000 US dollars (USD) for violating the trade embargo and spend up to 10 years in prison.
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A few US citizens can travel to Cuba legally, though they still must fly in from another country in most cases. US citizens who have family members in Cuba are allowed to go to the island. Professional journalists may also visit as part of a professional trip. Diplomats from the US, or US citizens working for humanitarian organizations also get special permission to visit.
In order to legally visit Cuba, one is required to apply for a special license from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The Cuban government recognizes this license, though one must still bring one’s passport. The license may be extended for several trips, or may only count for one trip. This means each time a person visits the island, he or she may need to reapply for a license. Legal visitors may also have to account for money spent on their trip, and there may be caps on the amount that can be spent daily.
Illegal visitors do not need to make money exchanges as American dollars are in high demand. However, most purchases have to be in cash. Cuban businesses will not take credit cards issued from banks located in the US. Further, plane flights to Cuba from another country must be paid for in cash, and people hoping to visit must apply for a special license from the Cuban government.
It is a common misbelief that Americans who visit Cuba do not have their passports stamped. This is not the case. Passports are stamped upon leaving the country, and can thus identify a person as having illegally traveled to there.