Moving to Cuba: What to know before you go
Published on May 12, 2023
Do you dream of spending your days sipping rum and dancing the rumba on a paradisiacal beach? If yes, Cuba might be the place for you. The picturesque Caribbean island has a fascinating history, warm people and a generally pleasant climate, making it a seemingly ideal place to while away your days. But moving to Cuba permanently isn’t easy for foreigners, and finding a job in the country can prove tricky. If you’re up for the cultural and bureaucratic challenge, here’s what you need to know about how to move to Cuba.
If you’re an American citizen considering moving to Cuba from the USA, you might be wondering if it’s even possible. After all, the two countries have a turbulent history (and present).
The short answer is yes, Americans can move to Cuba. The longer answer is, well, a bit more complicated. It’s difficult for anyone who isn’t already a Cuban citizen (or doesn’t have close family ties to a Cuban citizen) to live in Cuba permanently. However, several routes are available for those looking to live there for an extended time.
Now to the visas. It’s simply not easy for most people to stay for long periods in Cuba. In the short term, visitors can get a tourist card. Most US citizens are granted a 30-day visa to stay in Cuba, which can be extended once while you’re in the country. So, that’s 60 days total with relatively few complications.
Another way to move to Cuba is to get a work visa. These are issued to journalists, photographers, businesspeople and certain other tradespeople, but they’re often limited to just two or three months. You can try to get a job with an international company, but this may also prove challenging, as Cubans tend to be favored for employment.
Finally, you can visit Cuba as a student — it happens to be an excellent place to learn Spanish — and there are visas available for study purposes.
The best way to move to Cuba in the longer term is to wait until you’re retired. Cuba can be a fantastic retirement destination for adventurers on a budget. The government issues so-called “Snowbird” visas, which are valid for six months and can easily be renewed.
If the rum and the rumba haven’t persuaded you to move, perhaps the climate and the healthcare will. In the wintery dry season, temperatures are pleasant all over Cuba, while in the wet season, pleasant breezes ease the heat. Healthcare, though not free for expats, is generally more affordable than in the US and is generally of a high standard. Other advantages include the welcoming people, vibrant culture and stunning scenery, which ranges from the tropical beaches of the south to the lush countryside around Viñales.
The downsides to moving to Cuba include the difficult visa situation and the fact that US credit and debit cards don’t work in the country, so cash is king. On top of that are the trade embargoes, which can make certain cars and other consumer goods hard to come by, and the laws restricting property ownership by expats.
You will also almost certainly need to speak Spanish to live in Cuba, or at least to enjoy living there. It’s estimated that only about 10% of the population speaks English! Then there are the lagging internet speeds, which make Cuba a notoriously challenging place for digital nomads to set up shop. And then there’s the issue of crime. Though Cuba is generally considered a safe country, it is subject to a US Department of State Level 2 travel advisory due to the prevalence of petty crime.
So, you’ve decided the pros outweigh the cons, and you want to live in Cuba. Where are you going? The most obvious place for expats to live in Cuba is the capital city, Havana. While nowhere in Cuba is packed with expats, you’re more likely to find a global community there than elsewhere. If you’re hoping to learn Spanish, the greatest choice of language schools is in Havana, too.
Another good choice is the nation’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba, tucked away far in the south. It’s home to Cuba’s most vibrant music scene, though the city does suffer from problems with street harassment. Otherwise, you may want to look at university cities, which tend to have more of an international flavor. Cienfuegos, for example, is popular with international students.
Moving to Cuba isn’t taking the easy route. There are far less difficult places to live, but many people move to Cuba because of their hearts rather than their heads. If you can navigate the visa rules and currency restrictions — and if you’re willing to learn Spanish — living in Cuba can be incredibly rewarding. The beautiful weather, friendly people and rich culture make it all worthwhile.