One of the things that was giving me a slight amount of stress before I arrived in Cuba was the issue of money. I didn’t want to have to carry enough money for a month in Cuba in cash, but there was so much scattered information on the internet about what would and would not work it was hard to tell whether this was going to be a really short trip!
Here’s what I learned through internet research and actual experience (valid July 2016, I’m sure this will change quickly):
- Cards associated with a US bank are not accepted anywhere. US Citizens really do have to bring cash with them for however long they are staying. Fortunately, and as the name suggests, the Commonwealth Bank in Australia is not affiliated with a US bank (though I believe Westpac is)!
- ATM machines only take VISA cards that are not affiliated with US banks, not Mastercards.
- However, if you have a Mastercard that is not affiliated with a US bank, you can use these in most banks and Cadecas (currency exchange houses). I used my Commonwealth Bank Mastercard Travel Money card to withdraw money all throughout Cuba with no problems.
- There is a 3% surcharge to withdraw money this way – ie if you want to withdraw 300CUC, it will cost you 310CUC. Ouch, but nothing you can do, except bring it all with you.
- You can exchange US dollars in many banks, but there is a 10% surcharge to do so. Better to bring Euros or Canadian dollars if you are bringing cash. I got a better exchange rate for USD in Mexico City airport (yes, they sell CUCs) than in Cuba.
- You need to take your passport with you anytime you want to withdraw/exchange money.
Having ascertained that I could withdraw money on the first day, the next thing to get used to was the fact that there are two forms of currency here. There is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which is what is used to pay for pretty much everything to do with tourism and which is equivalent to a little over USD$1. Then there is the Moneda Nacional (CUP), which is what the locals use and which is equivalent to about 4 US cents. Unfortunately, the 20 CUC and 20 CUP notes are rather similar, so make sure you are careful about which ones you are handing over!
I suggest when you extract your money from the bank or the Cadeca that you convert about 5CUC into CUP so that you can use the public bathrooms everywhere (they are expecting CUPs), and buy street food – especially the pizza (they eat a lot of pizza here) – if you like to eat cheaply.