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Cuba

A Mutual Commitment to Support Research and Study
Colorful buildings and a church in Cuba

Photo credit: Catherine Hua '20

GSS Country Snapshot

A brief overview of Harvard activities, safety & security, health, cultural, and outbound immigration considerations

At Harvard, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies’ (DRCLAS) Cuba Studies Program expands scientific and scholarly exchanges with Cuba and fosters the development, dissemination, and analysis of Cuba-related research throughout Harvard and the U.S. The Consortium for Advanced Study Abroad (CASA), which Harvard is a member of, also operates a study abroad program in Havana.

Because of the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, there are significant legal restrictions on the types of allowable travel and activities. Carefully review the visa and travel documents section below.

The information on this page is intended as a high-level summary and is not all encompassing. Situations on the ground can change rapidly. We encourage you to review the additional resources and utilize your Harvard network to learn more. You can also schedule a consultation with us if you’d like to discuss the safety and security or operational matters unique to you and your travel or project. We’ll work with you to minimize risks and help you make informed decisions about your travel and activities.

Safety & Security

The Harvard GSS risk rating for Cuba is elevated risk. Note that, per the student travel policy, College students have additional pre-departure requirements for elevated-risk locations.

Some of the factors influencing this rating for Harvard affiliates include insufficient infrastructure and services, including communications, transportation, and healthcare; the risks of petty crime and natural disasters; and the ongoing political tensions between the U.S. and Cuba. Corruption is commonly reported, and petty theft and street scams occur in Havana and tourist areas. Homosexuality is legal, but same sex marriage is not recognized. As with any country, you need to research and consider all factors in the context of your identity, your activities in country, and your familiarity with the country and its culture. If a security incident occurs, contact International SOS through the Assistance App or by dialing +1-617-998-0000.

Weather and environmental incidents create safety risks in Cuba, disrupting travel and essential services. Given its location, the island nation is prone to earthquakes and hurricanes. Make sure you’re informed, prepared, and have a plan in case a natural disaster occurs. Download the International SOS app to receive push alerts about incidents in your area.

Road conditions vary greatly in Cuba. A central highway spans the length of the island, and secondary roads connect cities and towns. Travelers are advised not to drive because conditions may vary from what you’re used to. Train and bus services are available, but official metered taxis are generally more reliable. Review the road safety report for Cuba (access code: Harvard1636) for more information on public transit, walking, biking, and driving.

Neither internet access nor the mobile phone network in Cuba are reliable. Public phones are available for use with pre-paid cards. Satellite phones require a permit from the Cuban Ministry of Informatics and Communications prior to arrival. Internet access is available in major hotels, businesses, and cafes, but the connection is reported to be slow, expensive, and monitored by the government. Know how to keep your data safe abroad.

Health

Make sure you’re up-to-date on any required and recommended vaccines for Cuba. Health risks such as Covid-19, histoplasmosis, rabies, and Zika may be present. If you're traveling with medication, check to see if your medications are legal and available in Cuba. Many common U.S. medications and supplements are illegal abroad or require special authorization. Medication supply shortages are reported often.

Visit your doctor or a travel clinic (such as Harvard University Health Services) at least a month before your departure to discuss all health risks and your individual health with a professional, to receive any vaccines or medications you’ll need, and to learn how to reduce your risk of infection or transmission.

Keep in mind that all travelers have a small risk of developing traveler’s diarrhea in any country. In Cuba, you’re advised to drink only bottled or boiled water, to avoid ice, and to eat only properly prepared food. Learn how to make safe food and drink choices.

If you need any medical or mental health assistance while on a Harvard-related trip in Cuba, contact International SOS through the Assistance App or by dialing +1-617-998-0000. International SOS can direct you to appropriate inpatient or outpatient care and provide translation assistance. Emergency and trauma care may require evacuation.

Culture

Cuba is a one-party socialist republic ruled by the Communist Party of Cuba. Its state-controlled economy is driven by agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and tourism. Nearly two-thirds of the country identifies as Christian (predominantly Catholic) and 10 percent as a variety of blended religions with West African roots. Music is a vibrant part of Cuban culture, and in 2017, the Harvard Jazz Band took a historic trip to Cuba.

Spanish is the official language of Cuba, and the dialect of Cuban Spanish may be difficult for Spanish speakers to understand. It's recommended that you prearrange any interpretation needs if you’re not familiar with the language and dialect. It’s customary to address people by their professional title and surname if known, or by señor, señora, or señorita and their surname.

Cash is the dominant payment method, and the Cuban convertible peso is the primary currency for visitors. The banking infrastructure is limited, and a few ATMs are available in the main cities. You can exchange currency at airports, seaports, and banks. U.S. dollars are accepted but are subject to an additional exchange charge. Note that Cuban currency is available only in Cuba, and it’s illegal to take Cuban convertible pesos outside the country. Certain non-U.S. credit cards are accepted at hotels and restaurants, but credit card transactions incur additional charges.

Know that photographing military and police installations, airport and rail facilities, and harbors is illegal.

When booking travel or scheduling meetings, be mindful of Cuba’s holidays and observances since businesses may be closed or have reduced hours. Anticipate and avoid large gatherings for political anniversaries or government-related commemorative events.

Visas & Travel Documents

Because of the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, only certain categories of travel to Cuba are permitted, and a license to travel is required. Regardless of citizenship, all travelers physically present in the U.S. must comply with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations.

Harvard has a general license that permits the University to sponsor student, faculty, and staff travel that meets the criteria for educational activities. Under the OFAC regulations, this is the only type of travel that we (GSS in collaboration with DRCLAS) can advise on and sponsor.

Carefully review the license guidelines and application requirements for Harvard students, faculty, and staff to travel to Cuba with the University’s sponsorship. You must apply for sponsorship under Harvard’s license at least eight weeks prior to your proposed departure.

In addition to the license to travel to Cuba, travelers must apply for a visa from the Cuban government through a host institution in Cuba. Also, your passport needs to be valid for at least six months after your departure date from Cuba, and you need two blank pages for entry and exit stamps.

Before booking your accommodations and planning your activities, carefully review the State Department’s prohibited accommodations list and list of restricted stores, entities, and companies.

Upon arrival, all visitors must have an onward or return ticket, proof of travel insurance covering medical expenses, proof of sufficient funds, and confirmation of accommodation. Visitors without insurance can purchase it at the airport. Any GPS or satellite-enabled devices must be declared to customs authorities.

Travel regulations are subject to change, so always check your visa and travel document requirements well in advance.

Note: Travel to Cuba for tourism is prohibited, and we cannot advise on that type of travel. We also cannot advise on travel to Cuba that may meet the criteria for the other types of activities permitted under OFAC’s general license (e.g. humanitarian projects, religious activities, public performances, athletic competitions).

Quick Facts

  • Currency: Peso & Convertible Peso ($, $MN, or ₱)
  • Tipping: Accepted
  • Voltage & plug type: 110 Volts; Types A & B
  • Telephone code: +53 Emergency numbers: 104 (ambulance), 105 (fire), 106 (police)
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