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A Comprehensive Guide on Moving to Cuba

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Relocating to Cuba

At a Glance:

  • As might be expected, the political scene in Cuba is very stable and does not experience a lot of changes.
  • Securing a visa or work permit is a difficult task, which requires patience and planning.
  • The best way to visit the country and admire its scenery is by using its rusty, but authentic trains.

Even in 2016, after moving to Cuba, you will undoubtedly notice the influence and remnants of the country’s history as a Spanish colony and be amazed by the colonial architecture the country is known for. But it is probably not just the novel architecture, which is mostly prevalent in the capital Havana, which has prompted you to get a work visa and move here. Instead, Cuba also evokes images of palm trees and beaches, of American Buicks and men playing dominoes whilst smoking cigars. But for expats who consider a move to Cuba, romantic imagination is not enough to make it in this country. Instead, being well-informed beforehand is essential.

Enjoying the Caribbean Sun

The island of Cuba is located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. Although Cuba may seem like a detached Caribbean paradise, it is located only 150km south of Florida. Cuba is the largest Caribbean country and also the westernmost island of the Greater Antilles.

The tropical climate is moderated by trade winds, making expat life in Cuba quite enjoyable. Throughout the dry season, lasting from November to April, expats moving to Cuba might experience droughts. From August to November, Cuba’s east coast is frequently hit by hurricanes, averaging one hurricane every other year.

Not a Lot of Change in Cuba’s Political Scene

Before moving to Cuba, you should be aware that you are about to relocate to the only communist state in the Western Hemisphere. Hence, there is only one party, the Cuban Communist Party or PCC. Raúl Castro Ruz, who replaced his brother Fidel Castro in 2008 as head of state, functions as the first secretary of the PCC. He is, in fact, both the chief of state and the head of the Cuban government. Cuba has enjoyed a broad period of political stability since the revolution. However, expats moving to Cuba should know that this has come under some strain since Raúl’s ascension to leadership, as his tenure marks a broad difference from that of his brother.

Upon becoming the leader of Cuba, Raúl introduced sweeping changes to the cabinet, including the firing of Carlos Lange, Fidel’s protégée. Moreover, his reign has also seen some of the most economically liberalizing policies the island has witnessed in the fifty years since the revolution (see our article Working in Cuba for more details). However, two of the most powerful officials in the party, José Ramón Machado and Ramiro Valdés, are staunch communists and have presented an ongoing opposition to the reforms (termed ‘updates’ by the government). Although it is important to note that there are no overt signs of political instability, the end results of continual reform and party internal strife remain to be seen.

Expats moving to Cuba should also try to get a brief overview of the governmental structure. The first vice president of the council of state and of the council of ministers is José Ramón Machado. Both the president and the vice president are elected by the National Assembly for a five-year term. The legislative branch consists of the Asemblea Nacional del Poder Popular (National Assembly of People’s Power). Its members serve five-year terms. Following elections, there are usually no big surprises, due to the one-party system. However, upon moving to Cuba you should make sure to not address politics and communism too directly. After all, Cubans are quite proud of their country and, particularly in a business environment, it is not a good idea to upset your local contacts and colleagues.

Cuban Currencies: A Complicated System

One of Raúl’s most lauded upcoming reforms (scheduled to be finished by 2016, but highly unlikely to be actually done on time), is the reworking of the Cuban currency. However, until this point, expats moving to Cuba should know that there are two currencies which are used in this country: the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), and the Cuban peso (CUP) or moneda nacional (MN). Are you moving to one of the bigger cities or tourist destinations in Cuba? In that case, you should make sure to use Cuban convertible pesos, as they are widely accepted. Only smaller towns and villages, or street vendors in the cities accept only Cuban pesos.

Please remember that Cuban convertible pesos can only be exchanged for Euros, British Pounds, Swiss francs, and Canadian dollars. ATMs, although they have become more common in recent years, do not always work. You should thus consider always carrying a small amount of cash to cover everyday expenses. However, try to avoid exchanging money on the street. Many a foreigner has been subject to scams and lost quite some money that way. The best way to avoid this is to not change money anywhere other than Cadeca exchange houses, or large hotels and banks.

Cuba’s Visa Requirements

Fact-Finding Visits

If you want to visit Cuba for your job search, or if you have already secured a way of covering your living expenses, for a fact-finding trip, you need to get a Tourist Card. It is valid for one single entry for a 30-day trip (90 days for Canadian citizens) and can be extended for an additional 30 days at the hotel where you are staying or at the immigration offices.

To obtain this visa in person at the Cuban Consulate, you need the following documents:

  • a valid passport
  • a plane ticket with entry and return dates
  • payment of the consular fee for this service

If you want to obtain this visa by mail, you will need the following:

  • a legible photocopy of your valid Passport
  • a legible photocopy of your plane ticket with entry and return dates
  • a payment of the consular fee for this service
  • a stamped self-addressed envelope for the visa to be returned

Different Types of Visa

Before travelling to Cuba, be it for a visit or in order to move there, you must apply for a visa. The type of visa you need to apply for depends on a lot of factors, such as the duration of your journey or its purpose.

Family Visas

The spouses and children of Cuban citizens holding any other nationality who travel to Cuba and wish to stay at the home of their Cuban relatives must present their passport and the document attesting to their kinship (e.g. a birth certificate).

You will also need:

  • a valid passport
  • one passport photo
  • filled-in application forms
  • a photocopy of the Permission for Residency Abroad (PRE) or the marriage certificate of the Cuban citizen payment of the consular fee for this service in cash of with a bank-certified check

If this application is made by mail, the applicant must present all of the above documents with a stamped self-addressed envelope in order to get their passport back.

Business Visas

Business visas must be requested by applicants from the corresponding office at the Cuban Embassy, and after approval has been communicated to the Consulate, the applicant will visit the Consulate during normal business hours. Apart from the documents stated above, you will need to prove that you are employed in Cuba.

Obtaining Permanent Resident Status

Applications for permanent resident visas can only be drawn up at Cuban consulates, and are difficult to obtain. The process takes between three to six months, and the required documents include:

  • your birth certificate
  • a letter stating the reasons for the application
  • two passport-size photos with a front-view portrait
  • a photocopy of the passport with a certification that it has been compared with the original at the Cuban Consulate
  • a payment of the consular fee for this service in cash or with a bank-certified check

The difficult part of the process, however, consists in obtaining another set of documents: firstly, you need a Certificate of Regular Residency, which is a document certifying or accrediting your place of residence. This can be issued by the police or the mayor’s office. Then you need to complete several health tests and present the results of a chest X-ray, blood and AIDS tests. These tests cannot have been done more than six months prior to being presented to the Consulate.  You can do these tests directly in Cuba as long as you go to a hospital or clinic specializing in the care of foreigners.

You will also need to present a proof of technical and practical capacity (for those older than 16 and younger than 60). These may be university diplomas or documents attesting to years of professional experience, technical degrees, or to your trade or occupation.

The consulate will also ask for a proof of economic solvency. You must therefore open an account in a Cuban bank.  If the DIE does not grant the permit, the account maybe closed whenever you desire. The bank account may be opened from abroad, as long as the certification is acknowledged and issued by the respective Cuban bank.  Your new account must have a balance of at least 5,000.00 CUC. Finally, a certification of criminal record from the country of residence is requested. It must have been issued by the official institution in question (e.g. the police) no longer than three months prior to applying at the Consulate.

Traffic and Transportation in Cuba

Cuba’s Train System: Rusty but Charming

Exploring Cuba by train can be an amazing way to get to know this exceptional country. After all, the railway system, operated by Ferrocarriles de Cuba, serves all provincial capitals. However, you should be aware that travelling via train takes lots of time and patience as, unfortunately, the train is not the most efficient mode of transportation. For example, the trip from Santiago de Cuba to Havana takes about 20 long hours by train, while driving would take just about half this time.

This is actually quite surprising, considering the fact that an extensive railway network is spreading across the country. In the past, trains were used by the Spanish to transport freshly harvested sugar canes to sugar mills all over Cuba. With the downfall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, however, fuel and spare parts became harder to come by. Today, only few train connections are active, the main one being the Havana-Santiago de Cuba connection.

Air Transit: Modern Infrastructure Available

Cuba is very well connected throughout the Caribbean and the rest of the world. Unlike its train network, Cuba’s national airline Cubana de Aviación is rather modern and serves major routes at reasonable rates. Here too, however, you might be required to muster up some patience as delays and overbookings occur regularly. With the national airline, a flight from Havana to Santiago de Cuba costs around 140 USD. Either way, for inter-Caribbean travels, you should head to José Martí International Airport, located 25km southwest of Havana.

The five different terminals of the airport serve different destinations. Thus, terminal one, which is located southeast of the runway, handles domestic flights, while terminal two receives US charter flights. Terminal three is reserved for international flights and offers the most modern facilities. Terminal five, on the other hand, is known as the Caribbean Terminal, as flights from Jamaica, the Bahamas, and other Caribbean destinations arrive here.

Traveling by Car or Bus in Cuba

Unlike what you might be used to, the quality of most cars in Cuba is quite poor. Prepare to deal with suspicious sounds from the engine, flat tires, and lots of rust. Whether you rent a car or decide on buying one, check its condition carefully and make sure to always have a spare tire and the tools for a tire change or quick repair on board. The more Spanish you speak the better! Fluency in the local language makes it easier for you to get help or negotiate with car dealers.

However, this is set to change in the coming years. While generally, only doctors, those with proof of foreign exchange income, and those with political connections were granted the right to buy newly imported cars, as of 2014, this is no longer the case. The majority of cars trundling down Cuban streets are classic American and Soviet imported cars, the former of which date back to the 1950s. However, the approval laws have been repudiated and everyone in Cuba now has the right to purchase a newly imported car, although tax and surcharges are expected to double the original price.

It may come as a surprise that, while travelling by train or car can be rather adventurous, travelling by bus is comparatively comfortable and efficient. The Cuban bus company Víazul offers trips on modern, air-conditioned coaches from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, for instance. Keep in mind that reservations are necessary during holidays or peak travel periods. Local buses (guaguas), on the other hand, are a lot less comfortable, and mostly crowded and steamy. At 40 centavos, they might come quite cheap. However, make sure to always watch your bag in the crowd.

Traffic Safety: Avoid Driving at Night

Accidents which involve motor vehicles have become one of the main causes of death in Cuba. In fact, available data suggests that it is the leading cause of accidental death in the country. Most of these accidents involve pedestrians or cyclists and are penalized harshly by local authorities. In fact, drivers may face prison charges of up to ten years, regardless of who is at fault. Travelling by taxi may seem like a safer option.

While most roads in Cuba, particularly those in Havana, are well maintained, this is not the case with many secondary streets. Sufficient lighting is rather rare, both on streets as well as on cars and bicycle. Thus, you should be very cautious when driving at night. In general, it is best to avoid driving after dark outside of urban areas or the principal east-west highway. The condition of most roads is so bad that some of them are impassable by cars. However, if you are so brave as to conquer a rural road with your vehicle, be prepared to share it with pedestrians, cyclists, and horse-drawn carts.

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  • Alberto Mendez

    From all the websites I checked before moving to Havana, InterNations seemed to have the highest quality and looked the most inviting.

  • Cynthia Fleming

    I discovered that I wasn't the only British spouse looking for an expat women group in Havana. So we got together and organized one.

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