I’ve received a lot of questions about what it is like to go through customs while entering Cuba, and returning through U.S. customs. No worries. ¡No problema! Remember, Cuban government officials want visitors, and they appreciate the hassles that Americans have to go through to get there. You won’t have a problem going through as part of an organized group. If you go by yourself or with a partner, your mind-set should be that you are strictly visiting as a tourist. There is nothing wrong with being a tourist, even if you speak several languages and have visited most of the world’s countries while living out of a backpack. (On the way back through American customs, you aren’t a tourist–you are whatever category you were when you applied to visit Cuba in the first place–researcher, health professional, conference attendee, etc. More about that with the next newsletter posting.) In Cuban customs, I suggest you not use the term “journalist,” even if you are one. It’s a “hot button” word that sometimes unnecessarily generates more scrutiny.
Most likely, you will be flying into Havana’s José Martí International Airport. If you are flying in from Cancún or another non-U.S. city, you will likely arrive at the large and modern Terminal 3, the main international terminal. It was completed with assistance from Canada and opened in 1998. If arriving from Miami or another U.S. city on a charter flight, you will arrive at Terminal 2, a smaller, older terminal completed in 1988 when the first charter flights after the revolution were started from Miami. There are also international airports at various other cities such as Varadero, Cienfuegos, and Santiago.
Before arriving, you will fill out your tourist card (Cuban “visa”), which is a small, unattached “double” page that you will receive with your airline ticket. You should keep it with your passport (the agent will keep one page and give you back the stamped duplicate). I suggest bringing along a paper clip to attach to your passport, because I have heard of these “visas” falling out and getting lost. Print clearly, preferably in all caps, and remember that dates are internationally indicated by day-month-year. In dealing with international documents, I strongly recommend that you not use a number to indicate the month. In other words, January 3, 2012 should be indicated by 3 Jan 2012, rather than 3-1-2012 or 1-3-2012 (see how confusing that can be?).
Before you pick-up your bags, you’ll go through the first checkpoint, similar to other countries. Always smile and say “good afternoon” or whatever is appropriate. (For some reason, Cubans hesitate to smile, unless you smile first. If you smile and perhaps wave or give the “peace” sign, you should be able to do away with that “Cuban scowl,” which many travelers interpret initially as being unfriendly.) The agent will spend a few minutes scanning your passport, looking at the computer screen, and stamping your “visa.” He/she will ask you to look up at the camera as you are being photographed. He may ask you how many times you have been to Cuba and where you are staying—just tell him the name of your hotel. (For you individual travelers on the “el cheapo” plan and intending to find a place to stay after you arrive, I suggest that you have a hotel in mind to mention. If you simply answer “Hotel Ambos Mundos” (a lively 3-star hotel in Old Havana), you will be fine. Even if you don’t have reservations, you won’t really be lying. After all, you COULD be planning to go there and ask for a room. The main thing is congruent behavior. All the questions and comments and surprises in customs in all countries are designed to make you nervous if you have a reason to be nervous.
At this point, if you feel adventurous, you can ask the agent to stamp your passport. Cuban agents are told not to stamp passports of Americans, because they want to protect us from our own government. Sometimes they’ll respectfully refuse, sometimes they’ll check with their supervisor first. (Remember, if you are traveling on a Special or General License, you are traveling legally anyway, so no worries. Personally, I consider having my passport stamped to be a badge of honor.)
Then you will hear a click and exit through a door which leads to another area, where any purse, backpack, laptop, or other carry-on item will go through an x-ray machine on a conveyor belt, and you personally will walk through a metal detector. (You will have the chance to put your belt, coins, and other pocket items in a bowl.) You won’t be asked to remove your shoes. Remember, Cuban agents are well-trained and are looking for signs of nervous behavior. They don’t spend ridiculous amounts of money on questionable hi-tech equipment, and they don’t frisk little old ladies in wheelchairs or pat down five-year old children. Also, I don’t think they profile that much. If I were a Cuban agent, I would be suspicious of me–a male American veteran, usually traveling by myself, making 2-3 trips a year. I’ve never felt singled out for any unusual treatment.
After you get through customs, you will pick up your bags and head to the next station. On about 80% of my trips, I simply rolled my bags out the door after a tag check. But if there is a dash or black line on your baggage tag, your bags will be inspected. I have not been able to figure out why my tags occasionally have a mark on them—it also seems to be a random event. You will place your bags on a table and an agent will look through everything. He will be looking for evidence of commercial activity, such as TWO laptops. You can bring one in, but a second one—even as a gift for a friend—will result in it being taxed, and the exact amount is probably randomized. It may start out fairly high, then after you complain, the agent may lower the amount. Keep in mind that Cuba has tourists from all over—Canada, England, Italy, etc., and they bring cameras, laptops, cell phones and other touristical things. Just don’t have two or three of an item where one will do. The worst thing that can happen is that the agent will try to get you to pay a tax, and you can usually play dumb, use up his time, and cut your tax in half or down to zero.
After that you will roll your bags past the last gate, and you’ll see the usual line of people—family members, friends, tour guides with signs, etc. If you are traveling by yourself or with a partner, you can locate a taxi to get to town, or to save money, talk to guides with the various tour buses and ask them how much they would charge to take you to a specific hotel or general area. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, or to ask several guides their prices.
With my next posting I’ll talk about a really interesting experience—coming back to the U.S. and going through American customs. Remember, no worries!