Q&A: Understanding latest U.S.-Cuba rules

Samples of Cohiba cigars sit on display at a cigar club shop in Havana, Cuba on Dec. 19, 2014.
Samples of Cohiba cigars sit on display at a cigar club shop in Havana, Cuba on Dec. 19, 2014. AP

Last month, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. On Thursday, the Treasury and Commerce departments announced revised rules related to travel, trade, banking and other matters. The rules go into effect Friday. Below, some specific answers to questions about these new rules.

Can anyone travel to Cuba now?

No. Tourism is still banned. The 12 categories of travelers — which existed before Obama’s announcement — are still in effect. Travelers allowed to go include those visiting family or for educational, religious or humanitarian activities. It will, however, be easier to travel because none of the categories will require a license, which means people won’t have to seek prior approval from the U.S. government (previously some of them did). Travel agents and airlines will also be allowed to provide services without a specific license.

How many cigars and bottles of rum can I bring back if I travel to Cuba?

Visitors can bring back $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 of cigars and alcohol combined.

How can I buy a ticket?

Until now, the U.S. government issued licenses to travel service providers — many in Florida — who then helped travelers obtain visas and sold them seats on charter services to Cuba. So-called people-to-people operators were licensed to provide educational trips that promoted exchanges with the Cuban people.

The new regulations allow travel agents and airlines to sell tickets without a specific license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). That means it will be much easier to book a trip and prices should come down significantly.

How can I fly from the U.S. to Cuba?

Several charter companies offer flights to Havana, Holguín, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos. Until now, the only way onto those planes was through a company licensed by OFAC. That could quickly change. But don’t expect commercial airlines to suddenly flood the market. Like all other route decisions, airlines need to see if there is a market of travelers willing to pay high enough airfares.

Can I use my American Express or Mastercard when I go to Cuba?

Yes, eventually. It will take time for banks to establish the infrastructure needed to handle credit and debit cards in Cuba. Travelers should first check with their credit card companies to find out when such services might begin.

Can I open a bank account in Cuba?

Banks — not individuals — can have correspondent accounts at Cuban financial institutions, but they are in the name of the U.S. depository institution, not in the name of a specific U.S. individual. The U.S. institution can use this account to engage in licensed transactions (such as accepting payments for authorized agricultural sales to Cuba) on behalf of a U.S. person.

Is there a limit to how much money I can send to Cuba?

The limits on non-family remittances to Cuban nationals per quarter has risen from $500 to $2,000 (with the exception of Cuba government officials or communist party officials). There aren’t limits on remittances for Cuban-Americans helping out family members or those destined for humanitarian projects or to start private businesses, including agricultural endeavors.

Can I purchase a smartphone for my relatives in Cuba?

The simple answer is yes, says Cristina Venegas, media studies professor at University of California Santa Barbara. However, service is limited and expensive and would have to be provided by a local provider as U.S. companies are not yet set up to provide the service. “It will take time to sort all of this out and Cuban telco will have to make adjustments to policies on their end,” she said.

Many Cuban-Americans already take their relatives unlocked U.S. phones that are loaded with SIM cards in Cuba.

Can Americans open businesses in Cuba?

No, that is not allowed under U.S. or Cuban law. (Though in reality some Americans are de-facto business owners in Cuba because they fund businesses run by their relatives.) The new rules, however, allow for exports of building materials, agriculture equipment and tools needed for private entrepreneurs such as auto mechanics or barbers. Most imports and exports between the two countries will continue to remain prohibited as a result of these changes, according to a senior administration official. Also, the embargo remains in place unless Congress votes to lift it.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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