Cuban Money and How Much Things Cost in Cuba
Author’s note: I first wrote this post in January 2017. Significant changes have occurred in Cuba since then.
A big change was the unification of Cuba’s two monetary systems on January 1, 2021. No more CUC!
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
(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.
April 2019: Tip from reader
Thanks to reader Jeff for the following tip:
I returned from Cuba about a week ago. We spent 3 nights in Vinales & 4 nights in Havana. It was a great experience and I cannot wait to return for a third time.
I brought over about 1000 CHF (Swiss Francs) & 200 euros for the week after having exchanged USD to CHF in NYC for about a 1.5% exchange fee at an exchange bureau in Midtown. I was then able to convert CHF to CUC at about 0.965. After the fees it was about 1.00 USD to 0.95 CUC which is a lot better than the 10% tax they impose on USD + 3% exchange fee which comes out to about 1 USD to 0.87 CUC.
Strangely enough my friend was able to convert 1 USD to 0.96 CUC with no 10% tax at the hotel lobby of the 5-star hotel Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski next to Parque Central on one particular day, the day before I asked if I could convert euros and they said that it was only for hotel guests. It’s a bit of an oddity when it comes to changing money in Cuba.
I do not know whether there was an advantage (like a better exchange rate) in doing the conversion in Swiss Francs instead of euros. But a takeaway from this is that if you must exchange USD for CUC, you may be able to avoid the 10% penalty by doing the exchange in some hotels.
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.
- 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).
- 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
There are 27 comments.
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?
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?
Hi Felix. Your currency information is very helpful thank you. We are going to Cuba next month flying on AA. Did you find that your boarding pass was sufficient evidence of having the required Cuba travel healthy insurance? Thanks
Hi Helen. From what I understand, a boarding pass from your airline is sufficient proof for health care as the airline fare to Cuba supposedly provides basic health insurance. But I did not have medical emergency over there, nor do I know anyone who did, so have no experience actually using the boarding pass for that purpose. If you learn definitely one way or another, please let me know.
Have a great trip to Cuba next month!
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!
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.
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,
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!
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
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!
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.
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?
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!
So back to the begging !? Now that the 10% is enforced on the $usd should I bring mxn ?
Yep, either convert to euro first or bring 10% more USD than you would otherwise to exchange. :)
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.
Hi Donna, I have no idea on the prices on any of those things because I did not buy anything to take home. I just took photos and video.
Have a wonderful trip, though!
Hi Felix. Just got back from our trip...IT WAS AMAZING!!!! And we are already planning out next trip back. To give you some current information. I was able to bring back "flasks" of Havana Club Rum for $1.45 each!!!! I brought back bigger bottles for approximately $5.00 each. I brought back hand-rolled cigars by a Grade 8 Master Roller named Rinaldo for a little over $5.00 each. I also brought back some touristy things like 3 cigars in wood case with Che's face burned into for $23.00 and other stuff from sidewalk vendors. The culture and people were fascinating and we saw so much. We did a lot of walking, which was great. It was hot, but not really unbearable, thanks to the cigar shops with air conditioners!! We are planning to go back in May and I can't wait. Thank you for this great resource. It really did help.
Thanks for the follow-up! Sounds like you had an amazing trip! Great info on the souvenirs too; whata great deal. So great you will be returning. Take care in the meantime!
this is excellent information, the best I received so far I leave on Thursday, November 16 to Run Havana Marathon I am so excited thanks for all your information - How is the water regarding safety I am from an Island and travel extensively however you hear so much talk about drinking water any concerns? I love adventure so I am not paranoid just checking . Also with all the new sanctions I plan on trying to exchange my money here in Florida where I live and exchanging it to CUC or CUP with the bed and breakfast owner im staying at
I meant exchanging my money for Euros here in Florida
Hi Dianne. That is so cool you are running the Run Havana Marathon in a few days!
Regarding the water, in Cuba it is best to drink bottled water. Like in many Latinamerican countries, the tap water is probably fine for locals who are accustomed to the microbes in the water, but you would be risking trouble by drinking it untreated. Either bring water treatment tablets or a water purification system, or buy bottled water (a two-liter bottle generally costs $1.50 CUC). Or beer. :)
I'm going to Cuba in March from the U.K. is it best for me to exchange some money to Euros or will i be fine with just our currency?
I suspect you'll be fine going there with British pounds and exchanging for CUC in Cuba. Good luck and safe travels!
Hi Felix & Dianne if she sees this. I'm off to Cuba in a few weeks and want to take Canadian dollars as it's nearly one for one with our AUD. I don't hear many people say they take CAD and I don't want to get caught out having trouble changing them.
Also, I see Dianne bought cigars & rum, which I was thinking of doing but as I need to travel home via the US, I'm concerned about getting items confiscated because I've been to Cuba. Do US citizens tell US immigration they've been to Cuba & if you have souvernirs, is there the chance they'll take them off me?
Hi Diane. I didn?t purchase anything in Cuba, and also didn?t have problems with US immigration at all despite going to Cuba (I?ve usually had more pointed questions from US immigration for other overseas travel). However, I went in January 2017, which was before the more restrictive rules again. So I?m not sure exactly you should expect now.
I?m guessing a few low-cost souvenirs would not pose a problem.
Good luck, and let us know how it goes!