As a first-time traveler to Cuba, you probably have a lot of questions about the Cuban currency: What’s the deal with Cuba’s two currencies? Which Cuban money should you use? Can you pay with a credit card or debit card? Does Cuba still impose a 10% tax on US dollars? Do they even have ATMs in Cuba? In this article, we answer these questions and more.
Right off the bat, we can tell you that the Cuban currency system is super complicated to deal with as a traveler. But don’t panic, we will cover absolutely everything you need to know about using money in Cuba.
1. What is the Currency in Cuba?
The first thing you should know about the Cuban monetary system is that Cuba used two official currencies until December 31st, 2020: the CUP (Cuban Peso) and the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). However, it all changed in January 2021, when Cuba eliminated the CUC and left the CUP as the only official Cuban currency. Therefore, as a traveler, you will use the CUP.
The (Eliminated) Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC)
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) was one of Cuba’s two official currencies and the one most frequently used by visitors. However, contrary to what many outdated articles say on the Internet, you can no longer use the CUC in Cuba.
This is because Cuba eliminated the dual currency system on January 1st, 2021 and the Cuban Peso (CUP) became the only official currency in Cuba. If you travel to Cuba before mid 2021, you may still see some CUCs in circulation because Cuban residents have until July 2021 to exchange their remaining CUCs into CUPs.
The Cuban Peso (CUP)
The CUP (also locally known as “moneda nacional” or MN) is the primary Cuban currency. It is used by both residents and visitors alike.
The CUP is available in bills of 1, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1000.
Stick with us because we will talk a lot about the Cuban Peso. But first, let’s point out the physical difference between the CUC and CUP.
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 CUP bills have faces. If you expect to receive CUP in a transaction and don’t see a face on the bill, you will be getting CUC instead! The CUC bill also says “pesos convertibles” right at the center.
2. What Cuban Currency to Use as a Visitor?
For most of your expenditures on the island, you must use CUP. All resorts, hotels, airports, restaurants, and tourist attractions will accept CUP.
You should always have the lower denomination CUP bills at hand to cover small expenses such as street food, bus fare, flea market finds.
With that said, if you are traveling with USD, we suggest you take some USDs to Cuba with you. This is because the USD is the currency king at private facilities, such as “hostales” (private rooms) and “paladares” (private restaurants). Also, while you can tip in CUP, hotel and restaurant attendants will welcome your USDs for tipping in Cuba.
3. Can You Use the US Dollar in Cuba?
Officially, you can use US dollars, Canadian dollars, and Euros ONLY at airports in Cuba. In fact, although the CUP is also accepted at shops and restaurants in Cuban airports, we encourage you to use your home currency (more on that below).
Now, although you won’t be able to pay in USD for products and services at state facilities, the truth is that private businesses in Cuba are eager to take your hard-fought US dollars. This is because of the existence of “dollar stores”, also known as “tiendas MLC”. The dollar stores are incredibly well-stocked shops where Cuban residents can buy food and hygiene products, home appliances, and spare parts for cars. These stores only accept US dollars! (Keep in mind that only Cuban residents can buy from these dollar stores.)
The CUP stores pale in comparison. Actually, the scarcity of products at shops that sell in Cuban Pesos is extreme. This is the reason why the USD has significantly become more attractive to Cuban residents.
That’s also why you may notice street vendors roaming around the CADECA offices and offering to exchange your US dollars for CUPs. However, to avoid the risk of currency scams, we still recommend that you exchange your USDs at a bank, hotel, airport, or CADECA office.
If you are staying at a hostal and trust your host, it’s not a bad idea to exchange some US dollars with your host… or better yet: pay them in USD!
4. Where to Exchange Cuban Currency?
Travelers can exchange Cuban currency at banks, hotels, and government currency exchange houses (CADECA). CADECA offices are located in airports, hotels, resorts, and shopping centers. CADECA offices are the safest and most reliable places to exchange currency.
Please, be aware that it is very unlikely that you will get Cuban currency in advance. If you manage to do it, keep in mind that you are allowed to import up to 2,000 CUP, according to a recent resolution from the Aduana General de la República de Cuba (customs).
5. The Cuban Currency Exchange Rate
The exchange rate depends on whether you want to buy or sell CUP and on the foreign currency you are using for the operation. The value of international currencies against the Cuban Peso is determined by the international exchange rate.
At each CADECA office, you will notice a TV screen displaying the daily exchange rates, like this:
The table above shows the current CUP exchange rate, according to the official CADECA’s website. The column Compra/Buy indicates the exchange rate at which CADECA buys the currency, while the Venta/Sell column shows the exchange rate at which they sell the currency.
Whatever currency you want to sell to CADECA, you will need to multiply the amount of money you want to exchange by the exchange rate listed on the Compra/Buy column.
For example, if you want to exchange 100 CAD to CUP, here is the math: 100*18.3451 ≈ 1,835.5. Yeah, that’s right, you will get around 18.35 CUP for 1 CAD… exactly how it says in the table.
You should also know that the Cuban currency exchange rate may be slightly more expensive at CADECA offices located in hotels, ports, and airports. The exchange rates are also updated twice a week. Make sure to always check the current exchange rate at the official CADECA’s website.
The US dollar exchange rate to Cuban currency: the (no-longer) special case
From 2004 to July 16th, 2020, Cuba imposed a 10% tax on US dollars. It meant that converting American money into Cuba money incurred a 10% fee on top of the current exchange rate. However, despite what you might have read out there, this is no longer true. As of July 16th, 2020, if you want to exchange US dollars into CUP, you will NOT have to pay for the additional 10% tax.
A word of caution: be aware of the currency scams
Aside from official currency exchanges, there are a few unofficial ways as well.
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 23 CUP for 1 USD, they’re willing to give you 30 CUP or even more. That’s because they can resell it later for up to 60 CUP!
However, keep in mind that currency scams are not uncommon in Cuba, and tourists are typically the victims. The currency scam can go one of two ways: 1) you receive forged currency in exchange for your (legitimate) money; or 2) you get change in CUC, which was eliminated, instead of CUP.
You could lose a lot of money this way!
Like we said before, if you trust your host, you can ask him/her to exchange your US dollars at CADECA’s rates. You can also pay for your hostal or meals at private restaurants with USD. In fact, they welcome it if you do it.
6. 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. In terms of conversion value, the British Pound Sterling, and the Euro are the best currencies to bring to Cuba.
With that said, bringing some unexchanged US dollars to Cuba is not a bad idea since most private businesses will gladly accept it. But, as a reminder: you won’t be able to use US dollars at state facilities.
You can also exchange the following foreign currencies in Cuba:
- Canadian Dollar (CAD)
- Swiss Franc (CHF)
- Euro (EUR)
- Pound Sterling (GBP)
- Japanese Yen (JPY)
- Mexican Peso (MXN)
7. Can You Use Credit Cards in Cuba?
In most cases, yes. Unless they were issued by a U.S. bank or a subsidiary of a U.S. bank.
While 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.
You should also keep in mind that Cuba is primarily a cash country, so plan on paying for most of your expenses with hard currency.
A note on 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 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).
8. Using CUPs at Airports in Cuba
Although you can use CUPs in facilities at Cuba airports, we recommend you exchange your leftover Cuban pesos before checking in at the airport because:
- The long lines at the airport’s CADECA office will make you cringe.
- Some travelers have reported that CADECA offices at airports won’t exchange certain amounts of CUPs because they might not have the equivalent amount of your home currency available.
- You are not allowed to export more than 2,000 CUP anyway. Airport authorities will likely confiscate any amount over that limit.
Perhaps, you will want to keep 25-50 CUP to buy the NAUTA card to get Cuban WiFi at the airport.
Here some other crazy facts that you should know about using foreign currencies at Cuban airports:
- Depending on how much of your home currency is available at airport facilities, you might get change in USD regardless of the international currency you use!
- Many attendants won’t take coins (!) of currencies other than USD. (They said that Cuban banks may have an issue with it when depositing the coins later).
- Some travelers have reported that the airport facilities won’t take bills that have tears or writing on them.
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! At least, that’s what we hope.
So, what do you think? Let us know in the comments!