Cuba has two units of currency: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), neither of which can be bought or sold outside Cuba itself so you can’t get your hands on either until you arrive. While Cuban salaries are paid in CUP, the vast majority of foreign visitors use CUC. This dual-currency system is unpopular among Cubans and its elimination has been on the cards for years but for now it still pays to get your head around it.
The colour and images on convertible peso banknotes are distinct from those on regular pesos and the notes clearly feature the words “pesos convertibles”. The banknote denominations are 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 3 and 1. The CUC is divided into centavos and there are $1CUC, 50c, 25c, 10c and 5c coins. The Cuban peso, which is also referred to as the national peso (peso nacional or moneda nacional), is divided into 100 centavos. Banknotes are issued in denominations of 50, 20, 10, 5, 3 and 1. The lowest-value coin is the virtually worthless 1c, followed by the 5c, 20c, 1-peso and 3-peso coins, the last adorned with the face of Che Guevara.
Hard currency is king in Cuba, and wherever you are it pays to always have at least some money in cash. It’s best to carry convertible pesos in low denominations, as many shops and restaurants simply won’t have enough change. Be particularly wary of this at bus and train stations or you may find yourself unable to buy a ticket. If you do end up having to use a $50CUC or $100CUC note, you will usually be asked to show your passport for security. The slightest tear in any banknote means it is likely to be refused.
There is a 10% charge applied when exchanging US dollars in cash. Scottish, Northern Irish and Australian banknotes and coins cannot be exchanged in Cuba.
Credit cards, debit cards and ATMs
Visa and MasterCard credit cards and debit cards are more widely accepted than travellers’ cheques for purchases. However, Maestro and Cirrus debit cards are not accepted at all, nor are any cards issued by a US bank or credit card company; American Express and Diners Club are generally unusable regardless of the country of issue. Although you’ll generally be OK using cards in upmarket hotels, restaurants and touristy shops, when dealing with any kind of private enterprise, from paladars to puncture repairs, anything other than cash isn’t worth a centavo. For most Cubans, plastic remains an unfamiliar alternative, and in most small- to medium-sized towns, cards are absolutely useless. Bear in mind also that power cuts are common in Cuba and sometimes render cards unusable.
The number of ATMs in Cuba is slowly increasing but there are still relatively few, and some of them only accept cards issued by Cuban banks. Among those that do accept foreign cards, very few take anything other than Visa, and again none accept cards issued by US banks. Most ATMs display stickers stating clearly the cards they accept. Those that take foreign cards are generally found in top-class hotels, branches of the Banco Financiero Internacional, the Banco de Crédito y Comercio and some CADECA casas de cambio.
As the CUC is not traded internationally, all transactions (including cash withdrawals) involving a foreign credit or debit card in Cuba will be converted into US dollars, for which a commission will be charged. At the current three percent rate, if you withdraw $100CUC from an ATM it will appear as US$103 on your transaction receipt. Some ATMs have a $200CUC withdrawal limit, including the commission charge, effectively making the limit $190CUC in most instances. There is no such limit if you withdraw cash through a bank teller, but the commission for this type of transaction is sometimes around one percent higher. Credit cards are more useful for obtaining cash advances, though be aware of the interest charges that these will incur. For most cash advances you’ll need to deal with a bank clerk.
Banks and exchange
Banking hours in Cuba are generally Monday to Friday 8am to 3pm, while a tiny minority of banks are open Saturday mornings. However, in touristy areas opening hours are sometimes longer for foreign currency transactions, referred to at banks as the “servicio de caja especial”. Not all Cuban banks readily handle foreign currency transactions; those most accustomed to doing so are the Banco Financiero Internacional and the Banco de Crédito y Comercio, both with branches in all the major cities. Whether withdrawing money with a credit or debit card or cashing travellers’ cheques, you’ll need to show your passport for any transaction at a bank.
The government body CADECA runs the country’s bureaux de change, known as casas de cambio, found in hotels, roadside kiosks and buildings that look more like banks. These establishments are where you should change convertible pesos into national pesos, though you can exchange foreign currency too and travellers’ cheques, and use a Visa card or MasterCard to withdraw cash. They have more flexible opening hours than the banks – generally Monday to Saturday 8am to 6pm and Sunday 8am until noon. No commission is charged for buying national pesos.
Black market salesmen often hang around outside casas de cambio and may offer a favourable exchange rate or, sometimes more temptingly, the opportunity to buy pesos without having to queue. Although dealing with a black market salesman is unlikely to get you into any trouble, it could result in a prison sentence for the Cuban. You may also be approached by people on the street offering to exchange your money, sometimes at an exceptionally good rate. This is always a con.
Current exchange rates can be checked at xe.com.
For any kind of money problems, most people are directed to Asistur, set up specifically to provide assistance to tourists with financial difficulties, as well as offering advice on legal and other matters. Asistur can arrange to have money sent to you from abroad as well as provide loans or cash advances. There are branches in a few of the big cities and resorts.
Other than Asistur, the firm to contact if you have problems with your credit or debit cards is FINCIMEX, which has offices in at least ten Cuban cities and can provide records of recent card transactions and shed light on problems such as a credit card being declined in a shop.