How to deal with the two currencies in the island? What is the most convenient Cuban currency for travelers? Can you pay with credit or debit cards? These questions usually catch the attention of any traveler before going in a trip to Cuba, one of the most popular destinations in Central America and the Caribbean.
The fact that there is not an exclusive Cuban currency is confusing even for the local people. The Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) are officially used in the island. The dual currency is not a modern issue since it arose in Cuba 102 years ago. Even though the authorities announced their intention to eliminate it, the CUC and the CUP still circulate and tourists use the CUC more frequently.
The power of the CUC
The CUC is not traded internationally and 1.00 CUC = 25.00 CUP. It is used in all the enterprises, commercial networks and goods and services establishments that use hard currencies such as: stores, hotels, privates and state restaurants, bars, cafeterias, taxis and car rental agencies.
By its side, since March 2014 the stores that used to take only CUC (known in Cuba as TRD) and other similar establishments now accept payments in CUP. However, it still can’t be used in all chain stores that offered “luxury” goods, or for the payment of certain services. Therefore, the best choice for travelers heading to Cuba is to have a lot of CUC in cash. This money is available in bills of 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100.
It is also useful to have certain amount of CUP, which will be very handy to pay for public transport, buy food in state and private agricultural markets, or buy ice cream at Coppelia. The Cuban Peso has the same bill denominations that the Convertible Peso has, but you can find larger denominations such as the 250, 500 and 1000 bills. However, you should always have the lower denomination bills to hand.
Exchanging to the Cuban currency
But, where can you get Cuban currency? Travelers can exchange money at banks, hotels and the state currency exchange offices (known as CADECA). CADECA’s offices can be found easily at airports, most of the hotels facilities, resorts or shopping centers. These are most reliable and safest places to do any kind of money conversion.
However, there are other unofficial ways to exchange currencies that you must be aware of, especially if you carry US dollars. These alternatives are more convenient if you are in a pinch or CADECA is far or closed.
Around the currency exchange offices and shops you will always find people prowling with more attractive offers: they will give you about 90.00 to 96.00 CUC for 100.00 USD. At the official places, you will receive only 87.00 CUC for the same amount of dollars.
If you are staying in private houses (hostales), you are likely to have more options. In most of the 14 000 hostales in Cuba, owners help their clients exchange money at better or similar rates applied on the streets. Otherwise, they will put you in touch with sellers.
Even when you may save some money using such unofficial means, it is better to avoid the risk. You might expose to scams, such as receiving CUP instead of CUC, or getting counterfeit bills.
The most convenient currency to take to Cuba
The Cuban currency has value only within the national borders and it is impossible to purchase it from another country. Therefore, the smartest option is to take the foreign currency that has a better conversion rate in Cuba, especially for getting CUC.
The exchangeable currencies on the island are the US Dollar, Mexican Peso, Swiss Franc, Japanese Yen, Danish Krone, Norwegian Krone, Swedish Krona, Canadian Dollar, Euro, and Pound Sterling. In terms of money conversion, the Euro and the Pound Sterling are the most profitable.
For international exchange purposes 1.00 CUC = 1.00 USD, but Cuba charges a 10% fee. This fee is not applied to other currencies. The only thing you should consider is the changing daily rate in the international market.
(TIP: Traveling to Cuba soon? Check out our guide to plan a cheap vacation to Cuba)
About credit cards and ATMs
Currently, in Cuba there are 780 cash machines, and they are scattered throughout the country. This year, the government is expected to install another 200 ATMs.
Most of the ATMs are located in the main Cuban tourist destinations: Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Matanzas (Varadero), and Holguin.
You can get money from the ATMs using debit or credit cards. If so, the 10% fee won’t be charged fee, but a bank commission per transaction that may vary from 3 to 12%.
Please, consider that Visa and MasterCard are only accepted in Cuba as long as they were not issued by US banks or any subsidiary. However, thanks to the resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US, US citizens will be allowed to use their credit cards in Cuba, but this measure still needs to be backed by the US financial institutions.
Following that line, in November 2015 the Stonegate Bank announced that its customers traveling to Cuba can use their debit MasterCard to make payments. “This is the first step in relieving the burden of U.S. travelers carrying cash when travelling to Cuba”, said in a statement Dave Seleski, president of Stonegate Bank that is recognized as the leading private bank in Florida.
Apart from getting cash in the ATMs, tourists can also use credit cards to make purchases with a surcharge of 3%. There are several Points of Sale (POS) installed in retail stores and other business units. This year, the government intends to install this modern device in all the cash registers to achieve a faster and more reliable trade.
Back in the history of the dual currency in Cuba
Back in 1914, the Cuban Peso was officially established and circulated along the US dollar. This situation lasted until 1948, when the local currency got full privilege.
Then, in 1993 the holding of foreign currency became de-penalized (in 1961 it was penalized) and the dual currency returns. Also, opening savings accounts in US dollars was authorized; the so-called CADECAS were opened to process the foreign currency exchange, and retails stores (known as TRDs) started to accept US dollars.
If you take into account all these tips about the Cuban currency, you will be good, for sure. Do you have any other doubts? Let us know on the comments below.