New rules on Cuba travel: What if you want to go right now?

New rules on Cuba travel: What if you want to go right now?
Tourists ride in a classic American car on the Malecon in Havana. A new set of U.S. government regulations about travel and trade takes effect Friday. (Franklin Reyes / Associated Press)

New regulations on Cuba go into effect Friday that ease restrictions for Americans who want to visit and do business there.

The new federal rules make good on the announcement President Obama made in December to chart a new course in relations with the nation.


What does it all mean if you want to go right now? Carlos Mendez-Penate, the Latin America and Caribbean Practice Co-Chair at the law firm Akerman LLP and an expert in U.S.-Cuba relations, warns travelers to take it slowly.

He says the changes need time to play out in re-establishing ties between the two countries.

"People shouldn't think they can pack their beach bag and head to the beach," he said. "They'll still have to comply with the regulations."

Joe Diaz, co-founder of Afar magazine, isn't waiting.

On Thursday, he was in New York City trying to find a flight to Cuba from Mexico or Canada. They were full. He wound up with a ticket that travels through Panama City.

"I want to go because it's a historic moment, and I want to be able to see firsthand how things are opening up in the first couple of days after the announcement," Diaz said.

One question going through his mind: Will the Cubans stamp his passport? Americans traveling to the nation--the subject of a U.S. embargo for more than half a century--were waved through, without a passport stamp that would reveal they were breaking the law.

Here are some changes that take effect now.

-- No more specific licenses: This is the biggest rule rollback, which will redefine how Americans travel to Cuba.

The old rules required travelers to have prior approval under a specific license from the U.S. government, which meant lots of paperwork and lots of waiting. You could travel only with a tour operator or group that had obtained a license.

Now specific licenses are out, which means, theoretically at least, that individuals are free to travel to Cuba on their own.

Mendez-Penate said, however, that travelers still need to fall into one of 12 allowable travel reasons outlined by the feds. Among them are family visits, humanitarian visits and people-to-people visits.

"Tourism is not an allowed reason to travel," Mendez-Penate said. "You still have to be within the categories."

-- Credit and debit cards: This is a huge step from the cash-only days, but don't count on your credit or debit card working anytime soon.


Under the old rules, American banks were banned from dealing with Cuba. With no presence on the island, they don't now have a way to process transactions because there's no infrastructure in place to make it work, Mendez-Penate said.

Cardholders from other countries, however, should have no problems with transactions.

-- Commercial flights: Airlines are poised to open new routes and flight schedules, but their plans too will be regulated by U.S. and Cuban officials. Past practice has been that Americans fly on charters from Miami or enter the country on flights from Canada or Mexico.

Now that the need for specific licenses have been lifted, it's anybody's guess how quickly airlines will receive a green light and move in to fill the void.

Other rule changes include allowing Americans to bring back $400 worth of goods, including $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco products.