Cuba conjures up images of classic American cars from the 1950s, sounds of Afro-Cuban music beats, Cuban cigars and maybe even Cubanos. But what does it take for Singaporean to be able to visit this country lost in time? In this post, we’ll cover what you need to know before your next trip to Cuba. Before long, you’ll be sipping mojitos & daiquiris (just like Ernest Hemingway did) in the heart of Havana…
Visa Requirements for Singaporeans Visiting Cuba
First things first, we have to talk about visa requirements. The last thing you want is to be turned away from a country after planning for the entire trip. Yes, that happened to us in Prague. Fortunately for us Singaporeans, Singapore has the 2nd most powerful passport in the world, allowing us to visit 156 countries in the world without visa (or with visa upon arrival) – including Cuba.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s website, Singaporeans can visit Cuba without a visa for a period of up to 30 days. However, all visitors to Cuba will need to possess a tourist visitor card.
and also fill up a customs form as with entry to all countries
The Cuba Tourist Card costs $20USD each and you must buy it from the country that you are flying from prior to entering Cuba. As we flew into Cuba from the Cayman Islands, we bought it from the Cayman Airways booth just before we boarded the flight.
One strange thing that happened was that when we were clearing the customs in Cuba, Kate had half of her Tourist Card taken from her (which is correct) while Tom’s customs officer told him that he did not need a Tourist Card. However, you’ll be glad to know that both exited Cuba without much of a hiccup. So don’t worry too much if your Tourist Card is not collected at the customs.
The other thing you will need to know is that the airline will check whether you have a return ticket out of Cuba. So it is wise for you to have your ticket out of Cuba printed out or stored in your hand phone, ready to be shown when asked. Otherwise, you may not even be able to get your inbound tickets printed out when you check-in at the airport.
Currency Exchange in Cuba
Where do I change Cuban Currency?
Cuba uses 2 types of currency CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos for Tourists) or CUP (Cuban Pesos for locals). The only way for us as tourists to get Cuba currency is to change it after you enter Cuba. You can do so at the money changer (known as CADECA) at the airport or designated money changers in Havana City.
Do note that the queue typically takes about an hour or so. Remember to bring along your passport. Or in Tom’s case, even though he brought along his Singapore passport, the staff was not able to key in his passport number into the system. As a result, the staff keyed in a “default” Canadian passport number into the system which was accepted. Wonder who this rich Canadian is??
Should I use non-US currency to exchange to Cuba Currency (CUC)?
As you can see from the picture above, if you are changing to Cuba currency using US dollar, you will be charged a commission of 10%. 10%! As we were also visiting Europe on the same trip, we decided to bring additional Euros into Cuba to change to CUC. You may wish to do a little calculation on your own to determine if you need to change into a non-US currency to avoid the 10% surcharge. This is because, for Singaporeans, you will have to change from SGD to another foreign currency before changing to CUC. This means that you will have to incur “losses” for 2 exchange rates. If you’re only visiting United States on the same trip and you have a really good exchange rate for SGD to USD, you might consider changing USD to CUC afterall. Bottom line, do some calculation of your own and decide which is a better option.
Should I change to CUP?
First of all, you can only change to CUP using CUC. Which means that you will first have to change from the currency of your choice to CUC and then to CUP. You cannot change directly from the foreign currency to CUP. Secondly, you should have some CUP on hand because we found a few instances where the same item is cheaper when you pay in CUP. Since 1 CUC is approximately 24 CUP, we purchased a pizza for 12 CUP whereas if you had paid in CUC, it would have cost 1 CUC (double the price!).
Thirdly, you do not have to change too much CUP. We only changed 5 CUC to CUP (about 100 CUP) and it was enough for us for 3 days in Cuba. This is because most transactions (especially in touristy areas) use CUC.
Why should I change to Cuban Currency when I have Visa/MasterCard?
One of the first few things we learnt in Cuba is that there is no concept of credit. “No Credito!” was one of the first things our host, Lucy, told us when we entered Cuba. This meant that everyone transacts in cash for everything! Including cars and houses! To blow your mind even more, an old 1950s classic American car costs about $10,000 USD. Meaning, if you don’t have $10,000 in cash, you can forget about owning a Cuban car…
How expensive are things in Cuba?
Things are expensive for Cuban standards but are still manageable for Singaporeans. For instance, 1 USD is approximately 1 CUC, a typical meal in Cuba costs 5 CUC. Although we were able to find cheap pastries for less than a CUC
or a very decent pork chop with rice for 4.5 CUC
Cocktails are generally in the range of 3 to 4 CUC even at bars with splendid views of the city. Beers go for 2 CUC. However, there are also more expensive joints where we saw entrees going for 20 CUC. After we saw one of these “expensive menus” and gave the look of hesitation, the waitress just said, “Yes, it is expensive here”. So we stood up and left…and actually no one judged us.
To end off this section on currency in Cuba, we have 2 little stories to share. While negotiating for the price for souvenir magnets, we could have sworn that the owner said, “5 pesos”. When we heard “5 pesos”, we thought it meant “5 CUP” and readily agreed. When we took out the 5 CUP, the owner then clarified and said, “5 CUC”. The reason is likely to be due to the naming of the currencies. Both CUP and CUC are technically known as “Pesos”. The second story is more like a snippet of information. A doctor in Cuba earns *drum rolls* 67 CUC…a month! :O
How can I connect to the internet in Cuba?
There are essentially 2 ways that you can connect to the internet. Firstly (the most common way) is to check into a hotel that offers internet service and then pay for it. The price varies from 2 to 10 CUC per hour at hotels. The other way is to purchase a sim card (Etecsa Mobile Company) and connect at one of the many wifi spots in Havana for 2 CUC per hour…
Do note that the queue typically takes about an hour or so.
Is it safe for Singaporeans to visit Cuba
A resounding YES! This is because the streets are heavily guarded with security troopers. Everywhere we went, there were security personnel. EVERYWHERE. We also heard from our friends from Jamaica (who frequent Cuba) that the security guards are harsh on anyone who steals, robs or creates any trouble. So in that sense, it is a really really safe place for tourists – even for Singaporeans who are used to safe streets at 3am in the morning. Our host also reinforced that it was very safe in Havana. To add to the credibility of this information, we actually witnessed a guy being arrested in the heart of Old Havana. Even though he was already subdued by 5 policemen surrounding him, we saw 5 other policemen rushing to that location while we were walking away. 10 policemen to subdue 1 fella? No wonder it’s so safe!
How can Singaporeans book hotels in Cuba?
The only way to pay for your hotel via Visa/Mastercard is to pay through 3rd party hotel websites. We used AirBnB and that was how we met our host Lucy. We also learnt that AirBnB have local agents who pay home owners such as Lucy by cash and sometimes these local agents fail to pay and this creates somewhat of a problem to owners like Lucy. We paid 40 USD for an apartment with kitchen, living room, bedroom and attached toilet. Which is 40 CUC – alot of money for locals like Lucy (remember we talked about how much a doctor earns in Cuba above?). Not receiving that payment can mean a substantial loss in income.
Are there really old classic American cars from the 1950s everywhere in Cuba?
Yes. They’re everywhere! Thanks to our host Lucy, we were able to hitch a ride on their 1950s Chrysler Plymouth (round trip) from the airport. It costs us 25 CUC per trip for a 30 minute ride.
These classic American cars (Ford, Chrysler, Chevrolet) from the 1950s are everywhere because of a limit on ownership of new foreign cars in Cuba. However, the 50 year-old ban on import cars in Cuba was lifted in 2013. Today, we see some modern cars on the roads of Cuba. Though most of these modern cars, due to their expensive price tags, are mostly owned by the government or companies operating in Cuba.
Is Cuba really opening up?
Yes. During our visit, we were able to see the streets filled with tourists…
There’s even an open-top bus tour just like our hippo tours in Singapore
Record number of visitors are pouring into Cuba and it is not as “ulu” (remote) as people think. There were literally tourists everywhere we went in Old Havana. In fact, the increasing number of tourists has given rise to another set of problem in Cuba in relation to food.
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We hope you have enjoyed our coverage on the things you need to know before your next trip to Cuba. If you have any other questions, post them in our comments section below and we would try our best to answer those questions as well! Happy Travels to Cuba everyone!