This is one of the trickiest parts when it comes to planning for Cuba. I will attempt to make it simple and break down everything you need to know about the Cuban currency and using foreign Credit Cards in Cuba.
First off if you are from America – this is a little more complicated.
American credit or debit cards are not accepted in ANYWHERE in Cuba. Let me repeat, they are not accepted in ATMs, banks, hotels or the rare restaurant that isn’t cash only. Also while banks do accept US dollars to convert into CUP or CUC (more about the differences later) they charge a HEFTY penalty (10-15%) on top of the exchange rate compared to Euros or other currency.
Don’t freak out.
It just means you have to budget and plan a little bit more – and I suggest, take more than you need. My full budget for Cuba is here.
Below is an easy step by step guide to get Euros (or pounds or Canadian dollars) before you leave the US.
Figure out your budget for the trip. Add up everything you could possibly be spending in Cuba. What is your number? I suggest adding a couple hundred more. Remember, you CANT get more money once you are there, so give yourself a small cushion just in case.
At least a week before you leave, call your bank and request to withdraw your full budget in cash in the foreign currency of your choice. We suggest the best being options are the Euro, Canadian Dollar, or British Pound. It took our bank 2 days to send the money to a local branch for pickup.
Pick up your cash and while you are packing separate your cash into different hiding places in your luggage. Cuba is safe but you can never be too careful.
When you get off the plane immediately find a Casa de Cambio (Exchange) and exchange some of your money. The exchanges in the airport give the worst exchange rate so you normally want to exchange a small amount to get you to town. You can then exchange the rest at a bank or hotel once you get to town. *Unless you are coming in on a Saturday/Sunday - banks are closed, exchange more than you need to get you through the weekend.
There you go! Getting Euros beforehand is a little more labor intensive but all in all not too hard.
Now you need to learn the difference between the two currencies in Cuba....
CUP vs CUC
CUC (Cuban convertible peso or ‘Cuban dollar’) is attached to USD and is what tourists must use. Hotels, restaurants, tourist shops and street food will all take the CUC.
CUP (Cuban national peso) is worth around 1 CUC = 24 CUP. And is the National money that locals use. You will also see signs saying MN (Money National). If you see a price that looks crazy high (aka a pineapple for 12) it’s most likely in CUC. Some street vendors will let you buy stuff in CUC and give you change in CUP but if you don’t travel too far off the beaten path you will most likely only see CUC while in Cuba.
The two actually look very similar so always make sure you are receiving the correct type of change – crime and scams are low in Cuba but it does happen.
Banks in Cuba
Every city has a Banco de Cuba branch, which usually have the best exchange rates. Cadeca is also in every town and is like a currency exchange kiosk. Banks are closed on Sunday and the hours are off on Saturday.
Like I said American credit/debit cards will simply not work in Cuba. This is why you have to bring all the cash with you before you leave. If you are from elsewhere Visa is more widely available to use but even still cash is king in Cuba.
Even if you do have a foreign (i.e. Non-American bank card) if they have American alliances you may not be able to withdrawal money once in Cuba. Call your bank and double check.
I can't stress enough...If you are coming in on a Saturday or Sunday be careful! Banks close early on Saturdays and are closed on Sundays! Exchange more at the airport and suck up the bad exchange rate if this is the case. (This happened to us, we are dumb, which is why I am mentioning it so often.)
Banks in Cuba have locked doors and usually only let one person in at a time.
Worst Case Scenario
So the worst case scenario happens, you blow all your money 3 days in or you lose it or you get robbed. (crime is low but it could happen) What do you do?
Your only option is to have someone you know in the states wire money to you through Western Union. Which means you have contact someone back home which means you need to buy internet cards...Hard to do if you don’t have some extra money stashed somewhere….
So guard your money, keep your budget and good luck!