ESTA and Cuba

All about the US ESTA and CUBA [ESTA After Visiting Cuba]

Many visitors to the USA travel there on the ESTA Visa Waiver program.  However, a change by the US Government on 12th January 2021 means that if you have visited Cuba since then you may no longer use the ESTA Visa Waiver Scheme.  This article goes through the details of the changes, relevant dates, and what you’ll need to do if you (as an ESTA user) want to visit the United States.  I’ll also cover the most frequently asked questions about the US ESTA and Cuba.  Here’s our guide to the USA ESTA after visiting Cuba.

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There’s a lot of detail in this article, and I’ve answered a lot of questions in it, so it’s best to read it in its entirety and then if you have questions afterward, either send an email or ask in the comments.  It can seem complex at first glance, but the rules are pretty simple now.

Why is the USA ESTA Visa Waiver Scheme relevant to visiting Cuba?

Citizens of 41 countries around the world can use the United States ESTA Visa Waiver scheme to visit the US for business or pleasure.   It involves completing an online form, paying a fee, and (if granted) removing the need to apply (in person) for a US Visa at an embassy or consulate.

However, on 12th January 2021, The United States Government added Cuba as a country to the list of State Sponsors of Terrorisms.  That meant that visitors to Cuba were no longer able to visit the USA using the ESTA Visa Waiver Scheme.  It does NOT mean that you cannot visit the USA.  It simply means that to visit the USA after a trip to Cuba you’ll need to apply for a regular visa, at an embassy or consulate of the United States.

The enforcement of this policy came in October 2022, and since then if you plan to visit the United States after visiting Cuba, then, even if you have an existing ESTA it will be invalidated. You are not eligible for an ESTA if you’ve been to Cuba.

The ESTA Application was updated on 6 July 2023 to include specific questions about travel to Cuba.  Previously it had simply referenced “the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism”.  The other countries on this list are Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Why the US ESTA cancellation is an issue for long-haul visitors to Cuba

Aside from the issue that you now need a visa to enter the United States, there’s another issue with ESTAs being canceled upon your visit to Cuba.

If you’re visiting Cuba from Europe, Australia, or New Zealand, then it’s highly likely that you may be flying via the United States.   That means you likely want to fly home via the United States.

There’s no “in transit” in the United States

The United States does NOT have the concept of “in transit” for connecting flights.  You must, even if you’re just getting off one plane and getting onto another, go through immigration and “enter” the United States, before then leaving again to get on your next flight. There’s more from the DHS here.

And if you’re relying on an ESTA to get you through this immigration process then you CANNOT.  If you’ve flown into Cuba via the United States, then it’s likely that you’ll be stopped in the USA and told that your ESTA will be canceled if you continue with your onward trip to Cuba and that you will not be allowed to fly back via the United States.

If you want to visit the USA again after Cuba, you’ll need a full visa

If you plan to visit the USA after your trip to Cuba (or indeed if you’ve been there since 12 January 2021), then you will need to go through the full visa application process.  This generally means getting an appointment at your local US Embassy or Consulate and obtaining a full US visitor’s visa (B1/B2), which is both expensive and time-consuming.

Am I trying to put you off visiting Cuba?

NOT AT ALL

I just want to clear up, with this article, a lot of misinformation and ensure that you do not get stuck, or book flights via the USA that you will be unable to take.

Does visiting Cuba mean that I won’t be able to get a visa for the United States?

Not at all.  If you’re ineligible for an ESTA, then the US Department of Homeland Security states that it does NOT mean that you’re ineligible for a regular visa.

Practical Steps to Take on Visiting Cuba

Here are several practical steps to take that can help you with regard to the ESTA after visiting the United States.

Make sure you don’t try and fly home via the United States

You’ll want to start by making sure that your return flight is NOT via anywhere in the United States unless you already have a regular B1 /B2 Visa for the United States.

The Cuban Government, since October 2022, is NOT stamping passports, unless you specifically ask them to, so there will be nothing in your passport to state that you’ve been to Cuba.  However, lying to the American Government – aka making a false declaration to US Immigration Services can have serious consequences for your future travel, and not just to the United States.  It’s just not worth it.

Apply for a US Visitors Visa

If you plan to visit the United States for business or pleasure, or if you’re a regular visitor, then you can apply for a 10-year visa.  You can get a B1 Visa (which is mainly for business) or a B2 Visa which covers you for both business and pleasure.  These are generally valid for 10 years.  The time taken to process these visas will differ depending on your embassy, so you’ll want to allow plenty of time.

Investigate a USA Transit Visa If you Want to Fly Long Haul home via the USA

Thanks to Alan Crocker of Australian Travel Agency PleaseYourselfTravel who contacted us at Cuba’s Best and made us aware of the US Transit Visa. Also known as a “C” visa, it can be used for transiting the USA. Wait times at US embassies tend to be shorter for this type of visa, compared to the B1 or B2 visa.

Now what I don’t know is if this visa can be used to transit the USA after visiting Cuba. I’d recommend that you ask your local US embassy. And let us know what you hear, it could help other long-haul visitors to Cuba.

Keep your fingers crossed for change from the US Government

I’m a big believer in the phrase “Hope is not a strategy”, but perhaps a little hope would help here.  The current US administration recently announced that visa processing will resume in the Havana Embassy “soon”, which is a good sign that there is always hope that Cuba could be removed from the State Sponsored Terrorism list.

Frequently Asked Questions about the US ESTA and Cuba

Here are just some of the most frequently asked questions about traveling to Cuba and the impact it has on ESTAs.

Can I get a different passport and then apply for an ESTA after visiting Cuba?

The question on the ESTA Visa Waiver Form is “Have you traveled to Cuba”? A different passport makes no difference to this answer.  A different passport makes no difference at all to your eligibility for the ESTA Visa Waiver Scheme.

If I fly into Cuba visa the USA and they don’t tell me about this can I fly back?

No.  Without a valid visa for the United States, you will be unable to board a plane out of Cuba going to the United States.  Even if your flight is a transit flight.  There’s no concept of “in transit” in the United States, so you have to go through immigration.

How long does it take to get a B1 or B2 Visa for the United States?

You’ll need to check timeframes with your local embassy as times differ depending on the country, time of year, and staffing.

If I traveled to Cuba before 2021 can I still travel to the USA on an ESTA?

Yes.  The cut-off date is 12 January 2021, if you traveled to Cuba AFTER this date, then you are ineligible for the ESTA Visa Waiver scheme. 

If I’ve already got an ESTA and go to Cuba what happens?

The Department of Homeland Security states “If an ESTA has already been approved and it is later determined that the traveler has been present in Cuba or holds dual nationality with both a VWP country and Cuba, the ESTA will be revoked. Ineligibility for an ESTA is not a bar to travel to the United States.”

Does Cuba Stamp Passports?

No.  Cuba does not stamp passports, it’s the Cuban Tourist Card (which I wrote about here) that’s stamped.  However, a passport stamp, whether it’s there or not, is irrelevant to the situation with an ESTA.

These are the resources and booking sites that we use when traveling to Cuba.

Get a Cuba Travel and Medical Insurance Quote from Visitors Coverage here

Alternatively, Civitatis Insurance is a great option for the required insurance for Cuba.

You will need a Cuba Tourist Card to enter Cuba – some airlines include these, if yours doesn’t, buy one from EasyTouristCard – now valid for 90 days.

Book your Viazul Bus tickets here

Pre-book and prepay shared & private shuttles here

Book the best FREE Walking Tours in Cuba

Reserve attractions, day trips, and activities in Cuba here

Get online in Cuba EASILY with a Cuba eSIMread about Cuba ESIMS here, or buy a Cuba eSIM here.

Download and install a VPN BEFORE you travel to Cuba > discount coupon here

Book Accommodation in Cuba’s Casa Particular here

Final Words on the USA ESTA after Visiting Cuba

This is a difficult but important article to write.  After all, Cuba’s Best is all about promoting why you should come to the country!  However, the elephant in the room must be addressed, and it’s only fair that you have all the information before traveling to Cuba.  If you plan ahead, understand the rules, and manage your travel with them in mind, this is a minor inconvenience, but one you must be aware of.  I am in no way suggesting that you do not visit Cuba, but simply that you are aware of the situation and are therefore able to plan around it. 

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