Card transactions require internet service, and Cubaâ€™s internet access is spotty.
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Dear Cashing In,
I am going to Cuba in November. I have credit cards from three U.S. banks, including a MasterCard from Bank of America. Can I use this card in Cuba? The rest are Visa. Should I call my card issuers and see what they say? – Ann
For the first time in most of our lifetimes, Cuba is opening up to U.S. travelers. In 2014, President Obama announced a plan to re-establish business and government connections with the Caribbean country, which had been mostly isolated from the U.S. since 1960.
However, just because there are regular flights does not mean that once you arrive payments are going to be as easy as they are when traveling to other countries. Like the 1950s cars that cruise the streets of Havana, the country’s financial and technological infrastructure is in a time warp – especially for U.S. travelers.
The usual advice for traveling abroad would be to find a card that does not charge foreign transaction fees, plan on using a mix of credit cards for purchases and debit cards for ATM withdrawals, and perhaps consider a card that gives you extra reward points for travel. But with Cuba, none of that advice applies.
By all means, you should check with your financial institutions for the latest information. Although the U.S. government has, in theory, allowed U.S. credit cards to be used in Cuba, in practice, they are not yet accepted.
Travelers from other countries typically fare better using their cards. But even then, only big hotels and major tourist operations accept them. Part of the hurdle to widespread card acceptance seems to be that credit card transactions require internet service, and Cuba’s internet access is spotty at best.
Although it is legal to use U.S. cards in Cuba, U.S. companies have not yet put together deals with Cuban counterparts that would allow U.S. cards to actually work there. NPR recently reported that just one U.S. financial institution – a small bank based in South Florida – offers cards that work in Cuba.
Eventually, this should change, as Cuba’s infrastructure improves and U.S. financial institutions become more comfortable working with Cuba. But for now, if you research how U.S. tourists to Cuba should deal with money, you will repeatedly find the phrase “cash is king.”
U.S. dollars are also not widely accepted, so you will have to convert your dollars to Cuban pesos once you arrive in the country.
A friend of mine who traveled to Cuba this summer says before her trip, she first converted U.S. dollars to Canadian dollars, because converting U.S. dollars in Cuba carries a 10 percent fee.
“Because there are no credit cards or ATMs, you must predict how much cash you will need for everything and bring it,” she told me in an email.
Travelers checks might be another option, but it is not clear if those are widely accepted, either.
Carrying a large amount of cash sounds like a hassle. But as Cuba is opening up, it is becoming a travel frontier. The modern world hasn’t quite taken hold. Maybe that’s part of Cuba’s appeal.