Cuban Money and How Much Things Cost in Cuba

Author’s note: While I first wrote this post in January 2017, I continue to update it to reflect the current, changing conditions. Last update was August 8, 2017.

One of our first orders of business upon exiting the José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba was exchanging western currency for Cuban Pesos Convertibles (CUC). This is especially important for Americans because it is nearly impossible to withdraw CUC from ATMs or CADECAs (casas de cambio, or currency exchange places) using U.S. debit or credit cards. And even if you are not an American, most transactions are conducted in cash—although you might be able to use a non-U.S. credit card at some of the more touristy establishments if you are lucky.

Some websites such as WikiTravel.org we had read before our trip said that exchanging dollars for CUC—which usually trades at about a 1:1 ratio—incurs a 10% penalty at the CADECAs.

It seems like the U.S.-Cuba relations keep changing, and there has been lots of questions among U.S. travelers about this surcharge. Below are the experiences of myself and others I had heard from about it.

Is there a 10% “penalty” for exchanging USD for CUC?

From January (maybe earlier) to May 2017: No penalty

Before going to Cuba in early January, we thought (from articles on the Internet) that there was a 10% penalty to exchange U.S. dollars for Cuban Pesos Convertibles. Therefore, before we even hopped on a plane, we exchanged dollars for euros at Wells Fargo, believing we would get more favorable exchange terms in Cuba.

We were kind of dismayed, then, when we tried to exchange EUR for CUC, and discovered that the exchange rate in that direction was only 1:1.007 EUR:CUC. (Per the Internet, we were expecting 1:1.08, for a difference of over 7%!) In addition, it appeared that the rate for exchanging dollars for pesos convertibles was 1:0.96850 USD:CUC (expected was 1:1). This did not seem like the big penalty we were expecting. This is what the CADECA at the José Martí Airport listed on their external displays (January 2017):

Currency Exchange for CUC Exchange from CUC

EUR 1.007 1.09824
USD 0.9685 1.0336

(Multiply the numbers by whatever currency—EUR, USD, or CUC—you have in hand to get the desired currency.)

In fact, there did not seem to be a penalty for exchanging USD for CUC and vice-versa during that time. Per my friend Leanne who went to Havana in March 2017:

USD conversion was definitely better. It was .9_ at the airport. And in town it was .96 or .93 depending on whether or not you had large bills. No transaction fee.

She would later add:

Better [exchange rate] for large bills. $100 bills they love. $20 not so much. I can’t remember where 50s fell.

In May 2017, Lindsay, a reader of this blog who came back from Cuba that month, concurred:

We took American Currency and found much better exchange rates [than what outdated web sites were warning about]. We were able to find 94 CUC to 1 USD. Very very good exchange rate.

Therefore, during that time period, I recommended not exchanging dollars for euros before going to Cuba—just exchange dollars for CUC straight up.

June 2017 to Present: There is a 10% penalty

However, in June 2017, the new U.S. president reversed many of Obama’s late-2016 Cuban policies. This basically reverted U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba back to pre-late-2016 policy. Notably, it makes “Americans who [now] travel under the Obama administration categories of permitted travel subject to a Treasury Department audit.”

Clearly, this will have a cooling effect on U.S. travel to Cuba. And since the U.S. reimposed their travel restrictions, it would not be surprising if Cuba reimposed their 10% penalty on USD-CUC conversions.

In fact, reader Erik Trogden—who traveled to Cuba in summer 2017—reported that he was definitely charged a 10% penalty:

10% penalty to exchange USD for CUC still exists. Period. (AUG 8, 2017). I just got back and tried every legal angle possible to avoid fee.

Exchange rate is 1:1 (although I don’t recall how it was listed in print).

10% penalty imposed at airport, bank, casa de cambio, and by hosts.

3% fee for converting any currency

They quoted the rate at 0.87 as if to include penalty and fee all in one. Not sure what was posted.

When departing, they charged 3% fee at airport, but no 10% penalty.

I don’t know anything about the penalty ever actually being lifted. Most of the intel on the web matches my experience.

Therefore, you may want to consider exchanging US dollars to euros or Canadian dollars before you go to Cuba, and then exchange that currency for CUC, to avoid the 10% penalty.

The Two Types of Currency in Cuba

So I already mentioned one type of Cuban currency: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which is essentially worth as much as a U.S. dollar. But most locals use Cuban Pesos (CUP). One CUC is roughly equivalent to 25 CUP.

Some, but not all, establishments will charge locals one price in CUP, but tourists a totally inflated price in CUC. The worst I saw were some of the government tourist destinations such as the Fortaleza San Marcos a la Cabaña. Admission was 8 CUP for locals, but 8 CUC for tourists. That’s a difference of 25 times.

We did encounter many little restaurants that would do fair conversions. Sometimes it is difficult to do the math in your head since you would need to multiply or divide by 25, so don’t be afraid to use the calculator on your smartphone for transactions.

How Much We Spent

Airfare for our trip (from Denver to Havana and back, with a layover in Charlotte, in January 2017), was $350 on American Airlines per person. A Cuban visa cost $85. (A Cuban visa is very easy to acquire. In the days after you book your flight, the airline will email you the name of their agency to acquire a visa from. In my case, it was Cuba Visa Services, and it took only two minutes to apply online. Then the visa was FedEx’d to me within a few days.)

Then, Maureen and I went to Cuba with 490 EUR between us and came back with 130 EUR after 5.5 days. (I did pay in advance for two nights at our second casa particular, however, so USD$70 was not factored into the math.) However, we didn’t go completely crazy with buying drinks and we also frequently had lunch or dinner at authentic, local restaurants. We also managed to acquire some CUP even though I think the Cuban government wants tourists to use CUC exclusively (or primarily). Having CUP made it easier to pay local prices without getting ripped off.

Sampling of Costs

All costs below are representative of Havana in January 2017.

Transportation

  • Taxi fare from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 at José Martí International Airport in Havana: 5 CUC (negotiated down from 10 CUC)
  • Taxi fare between José Martí International Airport and El Capitolio: 30 CUC
  • Collectivo from the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) to Havana Vieja: 8 CUC for 4 people
  • Taxi fare from Havana Vieja to Guanabo: 10 CUC for 4 people
  • Ferry ride to/from Havana Vieja/Casablanca: 20 CUP
  • Local bus fares: 5 CUP (exact number could be different but I seem to remember it costing only USD$0.10 or $0.25 for a cross-town ride).

Lodging

  • Casas particulares (private homes like AirBnBs): 30-35 CUC for a bedroom. (Alex and Matt even got a whole apartment for 35 CUC one night, with the owner living next door.) You can either make a reservation in advance on sites like AirBnB.com or Homestay.com, or you can try your luck and look for a casa particular by looking for white rectangular signs (approximately 1 ft. X 2 ft.) with a blue boat anchor on it saying something like Arrendedor Divisa. Remember to bring toilet paper!

Food & Drink

  • A daiquirí at El Floridita (Hemingway’s favorite place for daiquiris): 6 CUC
  • A daiquiri at Café Europa six blocks east on Obispo St.: 2 CUC
  • Restaurant tipping if service charge is not already included on bill: 10%
  • Entrées: The super touristy places will charge about the same amount as in the States (e.g., 10-15 CUC), but there are many restaurants (even some touristy ones like Café Europa on Obispo #301 or El Patchanka on Bernaza #162) that will charge 4-6 CUC per entrée. At the more authentic “holes-in-the-wall” that list their prices in CUP, entrées are usually more like 2 CUC.
  • 2.5-liter bottles of water: usually 1.5-2 CUC, although I once got ripped off for 3 CUC
  • “Freshly squeezed organic sugar cane” + rum drink at outdoor restaurant about a 1/4-mile south of El Morro: 4 CUC
  • Rum in coconut drink at the Playas del Este: 4 CUC
  • Most cocktails like mojitos in restaurants like El Patchanka: usually 2-3 CUC
  • Bunch of small bananas from roadside cart: 10 CUP

Sites to See

  • National Museum of Fine Arts: 8 CUC
  • Fortaleza de San Marcos de La Habaña: 8 CUP (locals), 8 CUC (tourists)
  • A bocadito (small sandwich with meat) at street-facing stand: 10 CUP (locals); 2.5 CUC (tourists)
  • Umbrella and two chairs at one of the beaches at Playas del Este: 8 CUC
  • Cover charge + two cocktails like mojitos at La Zorra y El Cuervo jazz club: 10 CUC

Bathrooms with attendant (most of them)

  • Tip (hopefully you get 4-6 toilet paper squares, if needed, in return): 5 CUP or 0.25 CUC
A mojito at the Don Saluatore restaurant in Havana Vieja, Cuba.

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16 comments
  • Lindsay says:

    this is amazing information! Thank you! I do have one question, can you provide any advice on how to obtain CUP’s instead of CUC’s to save some money?

    • Felix Wong says:

      Hi Lindsay. Thanks for stopping by my blog and for your comment. To obtain CUP, when buying something from a merchant (say, a bottle of water or beer) with CUC, try asking for change in CUP. That’s how we first got some! Many merchants would be happy to oblige and are good at figuring out the math correctly (1 CUC = 25 CUC), which you could verify by using the calculator on your phone if you were so inclined.

      Good luck! Will you be going to Cuba soon?

  • Anita says:

    Like Lindsay said, great post! I’m so glad to learn about your experience on exchanging of USD for CUC. Every else I’ve read is about the 10% fee or so. Your experience is much more recent. It would have cost me about that much in %-loss changing USD to EUR or even Canadian money through my bank. My friend and I are planning on going to Cuba next January 2018. I’m putting together ideas now since we will only be able to be there one week. We want to explore outside Habana as well. Again, thanks for all the details on your trip! Helps a lot!

    • Felix Wong says:

      Hi Anita. Thanks for stopping by my website and for your comment. That is exciting you are going to Cuba in January 2018!

      I’m glad the info was helpful. If you find out other information or other tips on Cuba currency when you go there, let me know and I’ll update the page.

      Wishing you a wonderful trip! You must be a good planner; I started gathering info only about two weeks before my trip.

  • Diana says:

    I am so appreciative for your sharing CUP and CUC conversions. Also the reference to items most tourists may purchase while on holiday. This will be helpful as my husband and I are leaving in 3 weeks for Cuba, only a four day trip this time, but, it is our first and we look forward to the experience and meeting locals and exchanging dialogue and culture. thank you,

    • Felix Wong says:

      Hi Diana. That is exciting you are going to Cuba in only three weeks! I’m glad you found the information helpful. I would love to hear about your trip after you return. Safe travels!

  • Rose says:

    Thanks so much for your blog I am so glad I came across it today we are leaving for Cuba next week 23 May and we’re just about to change money to euros I’m glad we are not doing that now. You definitely recommend just changing US dollars to see you sees at the airport and Havana correct?We are going with a small tour group so we will have a tour guide but we do want to take a side trip on our own to Mantanzas Cuba. Do you have any information on booking a driver for a day and what the rates are and if they are easy to come by to take us on a day trip thanks . Rose

    • Felix Wong says:

      Hi Rose! Between my experience, my friend Leanne’s, and reader Lindsay’s, I am confident that the best thing to do nowadays is to simply exchange US dollars for CUC when you arrive in Cuba. Exchanging at the airport is fine and is probably best. No reason to go through the hassle of changing money to euros in advance because it doesn’t seem like you’ll be saving anything unlike a couple years ago.

      I don’t have any information on booking a driver for a day or their rates. Sorry! I’m not even sure how to go about getting one. One way might be to negotiate with the many taxi drivers over there.

      Have a great trip next week!

  • Josh says:

    Felix – thanks for the information as we are going in a couple of weeks. One thing to note on the exchange rates, when the euro is lower (as it was earlier this year) in regards to exchange with the CUC, I agree with potentially keeping and changing American money, but when the Euro is high against the CUC (like right now it is above 1.10 CUC/Euro) then it actually works out to get Euro and change it even if they aren’t doing the typical 13%. You just have to do the math near your travels….there shouldn’t be a blanket statement of to do it or not – just math. With the dollar going down the last couple of days due to politics and the Euro trending up the last month we are going the Euro route as our bank has given us a favorable USD to Euro exchange rate and no fee.

    • Felix Wong says:

      You make a good point, Josh. I suppose this is good advice for other countries as well. The international monetary markets are not always perfectly in sync, so exchange rates can lag from one place to the next.

  • Your blog is very informative. I’m heading to Cuba in September with a Witness for Peace delegation. Our transportation, lodging, and meals are taken care of. Our time will be scheduled for the most part with time off on our own. That said, what would you suggest in the way of amount of currency to exchange? My main interest, aside from what I’m going to learn about, is textiles. Any suggestions there?

    • Felix Wong says:

      Hi Deborah. Thanks for stoopping by my blog and for your comment. What a great thing you are doing, and what a great opportunity to visit Cuba, with the Witness for Peace delegation!

      It sounds like almost all of your expenses will be covered. You will probably need only a nominal amount of money to, for example, use a public bathroom (tips of about .25-.50 CUC to the bathroom attendant are expected, which you usually get a few squares of toilet paper in exchange), take a taxi to go into town on your own at night, and, say, go out for coffee or a drink or attend a live music venue.

      I’d assume you won’t be buying many or any souvenirs considering the U.S. government really doesn’t want you to be buying many things over there. I just took photos.

      It’s hard to say exactly how much you will need without knowing how long you will be there and if you intend to venture into areas on your own, without your group. But I don’t imagine you will need much.

      If you think there’s a good possibility you won’t need to pay for anything since you will be with your group the entire time, you could just plan on bringing American dollars, and in the event you think you may need some CUC, exchange the dollars at your hotel or at a local Cadeca. There’s no monetary advantage to exchanging money there versus the airport, just the convenience factor.

      You will be spending so little money on your own that I wouldn’t worry about the 10% USD->CUC penalty… just think of it as a 10% tax.

      Regarding learning about textiles, maybe check out the National Museum of Fine Arts? (Entrance was $8 CUC when I went.) I don’t think there were many textiles on display there, but there were some.

      Good luck and enjoy the trip!

  • Clint sterba says:

    So back to the begging !? Now that the 10% is enforced on the $usd should I bring mxn ?

  • Donna says:

    Hi. Thanks for all of the information. I am leaving for Cuba on Royal Caribbean Sunday, September 17, 2017. Can you give me some tips on gifts to bring back. How much is rum and cigars, or even little trinkets. Thank you.


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