You’ve landed in Cuba and now you’re ready to hail a famous vintage taxi to whisk you off to your room at the nearby casa particular. But all you have in your wallet is money from your home country and an American credit card, but… no Cuban currency and no idea on how tipping in Cuba works?
At this point, you probably have a lot of questions: What’s the deal with Cuba’s two currencies? Which Cuban currency should a tourist use? Can you pay with a credit card or debit card? How tipping in Cuba works?
In this article, we answer these questions and more. Before going on a trip to Cuba, you’ll want to know how to convert your currency and spend money on the island.
1. What is the Currency in Cuba: the Dual System
The first thing you should know about the Cuban monetary system is that Cuba uses two official currencies: The CUP (Cuban Peso) and the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). As a tourist, you’ll use the CUC a lot more frequently.
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC)
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is one of Cuba’s two official currencies and the one most frequently used by travelers. It’s also the more valuable of the two.
The value of the CUC is pinned to the U.S. dollar so that 1 CUC will always equal 1 U.S. dollar. However, there are some exchange and bank fees that you will have to cover. We will talk about fees later on in this article.
The CUC is available in bills of 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100. You should always have the lower denomination bills to hand.
The Cuban Peso (CUP)
The CUP is primarily used by residents of Cuba. As a tourist, you probably won’t use this one very often, but it may benefit you to carry a small amount of CUP for small expenses like street food, bus fare, flea market finds. For comparison, 1 CUP is only worth about 4 U.S. cents.
The CUP has the same bill denominations that the CUC has, but you can find larger bills of 250, 500 and 1000 pesos.
The tangible difference between the CUC and CUP
You’ve never been there. Never used Cuban money. So, how are you supposed to know the difference between the CUC and the CUP and avoid getting scammed?
Here is the secret: the CUC bills don’t have faces. If you expect to receive CUC in a transaction and see a face on the bill, you will be getting CUP instead! Also, look for the words “pesos convertibles” right at the center of the CUC bill.
2. Exchanging Money in Cuba
You can’t buy the Cuban currency in advance
Prepared travelers often like to exchange currency in advance so they have spendable money in their pockets as soon as they arrive in the country. Keep in mind that you can’t do this for Cuba.
Cuban money is not available for exchange outside of Cuba, so you’ll have to stop by a currency exchange office once you arrive (and don’t forget to exchange your extra Cuban currency before you leave!).
Each major airport has a currency exchange office, so that should be the first place you stop after getting off the plane.
Where to exchange money in Cuba
When you arrive in Cuba, you’ll have to change your foreign currency into Cuba money. So where should you go to get Cuban money?
Travelers can exchange their currency at banks, hotels, and government currency exchange centers (CADECA). CADECA offices are located in airports, hotels, resorts, and shopping centers. CADECA offices are the safest and most reliable places to exchange currency.
Aside from official currency exchanges, there are a few unofficial ways as well. In a pinch, there are other options that may be more convenient if the CADECA is closed or too far away to easily travel to.
Most often, you can stumble upon these “opportunities” just outside of currency exchange offices and local shops. Often, people willing to make unofficial exchanges will pitch you on attractive offers: instead of the official rate of about 87 CUC for 100 USD, they’re willing to give you 90 or 96 CUC.
Another option is working with the owner of the casa particular you’re staying in (this obviously doesn’t apply if you’re staying in a resort!). Many hosts are willing to help their guests exchange money at a better rate than what you would get from a CADECA.
Although you may save money using unofficial means, it comes with a risk. Tourists often fall victim to scams like receiving CUP (the lower value currency) instead of CUC or getting fraudulent bills.
The Cuban currency exchange rate
The exchange rate for international currencies will vary depending on whether you use U.S. dollars or non-American currency.
For international exchange purposes, 1 CUC = 1 USD, but converting American money into Cuba money will incur a 10% fee. On top of that, you have to add another 3% of bank commissions. Yes, you will end up paying 1.13 USD for 1 CUC.
Other international currencies, like the Euro and Canadian dollar, are not subject to a “pinned” rate or an exchange fee. Instead, their value against the Cuban peso is determined by the international exchange rate.
Be aware of the currency scams
Currency scams are common in Cuba, and tourists are typically the victims. The currency scam can go one of two ways.
The first scam is when you receive forged currency in exchange for your (legitimate) money. You’re only at risk of getting forged money if you make an unofficial currency exchange. This is not a risk for exchanges made at CADECA offices.
The second scam to watch out for is the “wrong change” scam. In the second scenario, a sketchy merchant might give you back the “correct” amount of change but in the lower value of the two currencies and hope you don’t notice (remember: 1 CUC = 1 USD, but it takes about 24 CUP to add up to 1 CUC).
You could lose a lot of money this way!
Although Cuba is one of the safest destinations for tourists in the Caribbean and Central America, there is still some criminal activity on the island, like pickpocketing.
You’re especially prone to pickpocketing in large cities like Havana or at popular tourist destinations where thieves are prowling for easy targets.
Here are a couple tips on how to avoid becoming a pickpocket’s next victim:
- Always be aware of your surroundings and the people around you. Pickpocketing is most likely to happen in crowded public areas during broad daylight.
- If you normally carry your wallet in a back-pocket, move it to a front pocket. Pickpockets will go after your back pocket because it’s an easy target.
- Be careful with purses and backpacks. Keep your wallet and valuables zippered up in an inner pocket and carry the bag in front of you instead of on your back.
- Never carry all of your cash on you. If you get robbed once, it’s all gone.
The best way to protect your money and small valuables while walking the streets of Cuba is with a travel money belt like this one from Peak Gear.
The belt is designed to be subtle enough that you could wear it under your shirt or jacket so it would be very obvious if a thief went after it. It’s also lightweight and comfortable enough to wear on all your sightseeing adventures.
Learn more about safety tips for traveling to Cuba here.
3. What is the Best Currency to Bring to Cuba?
Foreign currencies accepted in Cuba
Since you can’t get Cuban currency anywhere in the world except Cuba, your best option is to know what is the best currency to bring to Cuba. It all boils down to bringing the foreign currency that has the highest possible conversion rate in Cuba.
You can exchange the following foreign currencies in Cuba: US Dollar, Canadian Dollar, Euro, British Pound Sterling, Mexican Peso, Japanese Yen, Swiss Franc, Danish Krone, Swedish Krona, and Norwegian Krone.
The best currencies to bring to Cuba
In terms of conversion value, the British Pound Sterling and the Euro are the best currencies to bring to Cuba.
American travelers (or any tourist carrying US money) should be aware that changing US cash into CUC incurs a 13% fee (including bank fees).
You can avoid this by converting US money into a different high-value currency (like Euros or Pounds Sterling) before you touch down in Cuba.
4. Debit and Credit Cards in Cuba
Do they work in Cuba?
In most cases, yes. Unless they were issued by a U.S. bank or a subsidiary of a U.S. bank. We know, this is a big deal for US travelers.
For the time being, cards issued by American banks cannot be used in Cuba. As the diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba continue to thaw, that might change, but both countries’ governments and American financial institutions need to jump on board first.
So far, the first (and only) American bank to make official financial ties with Cuba is Stonegate Bank. In November 2015, they announced that their customers would be able to use their MasterCards in Cuba.
While other major American financial companies like American Express and MasterCard have announced that they’re in the process of having their cards approved for use in Cuba, you can’t use them just yet.
Even with these relaxed restrictions, keep in mind that Cuba is primarily a cash country, so plan on paying for most of your expenses with hard currency.
ATMs in Cuba
If you want to get cash, you can withdraw money from Cuban ATMs using either a debit card or a credit card.
You won’t be subject to the 10% fee, but you may be charged a bank commission fee that can cost anywhere between 3 to 12% per transaction.
ATMs in Cuba are not as common as they are in other parts of the world. Currently, Cuba has 780 cash machines with plans to install another 200 ATMs in the coming year. Most of Cuba’s ATMs are located in large cities and popular tourist destinations like Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, and Matanzas (Varadero).
5. What Cuban Currency to Use: When and Where
When and where to use the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC)?
For most of your expenditures on the island, you can use CUC (the “tourist” currency). You should convert most of your foreign currency into CUC, but you should also have a small amount of CUP for situations we’ll discuss in the next section. Most resorts, hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions will accept CUC.
When and where to use the Cuban Peso (CUP)?
CUP is the currency typically used by locals, but there are a few cases where you may wish to pay using it instead of CUC:
- Street food
- Bus fare
- Flea market purchases
- Purchases made at small local shops and convenience marts
You can’t export Cuban currency
Keep in mind that you can’t export Cuban money. This is especially important at the very beginning and very end of your trip.
At the end of your trip, remember to exchange any of your leftover Cuban pesos back into foreign currency before you leave. Once you arrive home, you won’t be able to exchange it so you’ll be stuck with unusable Cuban money!
6. Tipping in Cuba
Tipping in Cuba is expected and encouraged. Workers rely on tips to supplement their incomes and support their families.
Tips are also a great way to show your appreciation for a job well done! While tipping in Cuba is the norm, there is a certain etiquette you should follow regarding who to tip and how much to tip them.
When and where?
Common places to tip workers include hotels, resorts, restaurants, taxis, spas, and guided tours.
Anytime someone renders a service for you, like serving your food, cleaning your room, or even bringing you towels on the beach, you should offer a tip to that person. The amount you tip them typically depends on the service rendered.
Take a look at the section below for some specifics.
Who you should tip in Cuba?
Restaurants: 10% gratuity is standard. Keep in mind that some restaurants in Cuba automatically add 5% gratuity to your bill. There’s no limit on how much you can leave, so if the service was awesome, say “thanks” by leaving a little extra!
Hotels: Maids should be tipped 1 CUC/night for each night of your stay. For porters, tip at least 1 CUC/person at check-in and again at check-out.
Taxi drivers: 1 CUC/person for a short trip around town.
Tour guides: Depends on what kind of tour you sign up for. For a guided bus tour, 2 to 3 CUC/person should suffice. For a more involved tour like snorkeling or sailing, you should tip 3 to 5 CUC/person per day.
Musicians: If you stop to listen to a musician, consider leaving a tip of .5 to 1 CUC/person. Especially if you request a song!
PRO TIP: Never tip in CUP since it won’t be well regarded by the hosts.
In addition to tipping in Cuba as a token of your gratitude, Cubans also love when tourists speak Spanish with them. Even a few basic phrases will go a long way toward bringing a smile to a local’s face!
If you’re still new to the Spanish language or a little rusty since your last Spanish class, bring a handy guidebook with you like Cuban Spanish 101: Bilingual Dictionary and Phrasebook for Spanish Learners and Travelers to Cuba.
It’s a Wrap
As you can see, Cuba’s currency system is as unique as the island itself. While this can catch a visitor off guard if they don’t know what to expect, the currency system is much easier to navigate if you know a few key pieces of information like what kind of currency to use, how to exchange it, and how to use debit and credit cards during your stay.
Keep this guide handy during your stay in Cuba–together, we’ll make sure you have a great trip!
So, what do you think? Have you used the Cuban currency before? Or are you planning your first trip and reading up and what to expect when you get there?
Let us know in the comments!