America,  Cuba,  During the World Tour,  TDM,  Tips

Money, currency, exchange offices, budget: everything you need to know before going to Cuba

What currencies should I take before going to Cuba?

The euro, the pound sterling, the Canadian dollar… but not the US dollar which suffers a 10% penalty when exchanging. Americans are still hated here. Besides, American tourists say they are Canadian.

Are credit/debit cards accepted?

Yes in some restaurants, especially in Havana, but not in the special casas that will represent a big part of your budget in Cuba.
Distributors are more and more numerous, especially in Havana. The exchange rate for distributors is the same as that applied in exchange offices.
I withdrew money once in Cuba (and had a heart attack because the screen stayed unchanged for 20 seconds – the connection speed was too slow). For the rest, I preferred to withdraw euros in France and exchange them there.

What currencies are used in Cuba?

There are two currencies circulating in Cuba: the CUC (convertible pesos) and the CUP (moneda nacional). Daily transactions between locals are made in CUP (moneda nacional), while everyday goods are purchased in CUC (convertible pesos). For tourists, all menus, services … are in CUC.
The rate, on the street, is always 1 CUC = 25 CUP
On the other hand, when you make the exchange at the bank, 1 CUC = 24 CUP
To announce the price in CUC, Cubans will say in Spanish “1 CUC”
To announce the price in UPC (25 less expensive than a CUC), Cubans will say in Spanish “1 peso”.

Are there price differences between tourists vs. locals?

Because of this double currency, yes, it isn’t uncommon for locals to pay 5 CUP for museum entrance vs. 1 CUC for tourists (i.e. 5 times cheaper). At the same time, when you know that the average salary of a Cuban is between 20 and 30 CUC (20 to 30€ per month), you can’t blame them. The same system can also be applied to restaurants, with “local” prices and “tourist” prices.
JB was fooled once. We were in a cafe on the beach. The prices not being posted, we asked our Cuban table neighbor how much his sandwich cost. Answer: 20 pesos (i.e. 20CUP, in moneda nacional). We placed an order and at the moment of payment, we handed a 20CUP bill, the waiter assured us that the sandwich cost 2.5CUC. We showed the Cuban neighbor next door, but the waiter didn’t want to know anything about it.
-> eat at local restaurants (and pay in moneda nacional) only if the price is clearly displayed.

Is it possible to buy UPCs (moneda nacional)?

Yes, yes and yes!!!!
No one prohibits tourists from buying UPC, the local currency. It is the tourists who forbid themselves, believing it to be illegal. In fact, you can’t directly exchange the EUR for UPCs for example, you have to exchange the EUR first into UPCs, then from UPC to UPC. It’s this little nuance that makes tourists think (wrongly) that they can’t have UPCs.

What’s the point of having UPCs?

Street food is an important element in Cuba. Individuals often sell food/drink from their windows, with prices displayed in UPCs. The tourist who sees 1$ thinks it’s a CUC so he will pay 25 times more (the $ sign is used for CUC and UPC, so you have to guess by yourself if it’s in CUC or in UPC (moneda nacional)). The sellers won’t bother to explain to the tourists that they paid 25 times more, they just collect. When asked for the price, they deliberately maintain confusion.

Can we pay in CUC even if the price displayed is in CUP (moneda nacional)?

Yes, if it is in a tourist location and if the price displayed is suitable for a quick conversion. For example, the 5L bottle of water costs 75 UPC (moneda nacional), I’m not happy to run out of UPC for that so I preferred to pay 3 UPC (= 75 UPC). And the seller accepted without any problem.

How do you know if the price is displayed in CUC or UPC?

Sometimes it is marked CUC or CUP. Sometimes it’s with a little $ sign so you can’t always tell. You have to guess. Sometimes you have to go like that at the nerve by giving a ticket in moneda nacional. Because by asking “is the price displayed in CUC or CUP? “you risk inciting the salesmen to lie. A churro on the street is posted at $5. We ask the famous question, the guy lies to us by saying that it is 2 churros for 5 CUC (5 euros).
The next day, we came back to exactly the same place, holding out a 5 CUP (moneda nacional) 0,20€ ticket, without asking any question. There, he didn’t baratinate and was satisfied to serve us a portion of churros.
Basically, if you think it’s overpriced in CUC, it’s probably because the price is displayed in UPC, even if it becomes surprisingly cheap (e.g. an Italian ice cream at 1CUP or 4 cents).
Practical exercise: guess if it is CUC or UPC
Answer: both pictures show UPC prices (it’s really cheap, I know!)

How to distinguish between UCCs and UPCs?

One of the well-known scams is to give you change with UPCs (moneda nacional) instead of CUCs (moneda nacional). Especially if you return by cab in the dark of night. So you can easily lose about thirty euros like that. CUC (convertible pesos) bills are a little more colorful and are marked “convertible” on them.
This is one of the reasons why you should never change your currency on the street, you risk getting a national currency that isn’t worth much, instead of convertibles.
As for the pieces, I still haven’t found an easy way to distinguish them. I think you just have to learn to recognize them, that’s all.

Where can I change money in the city center?

In tourist guides, CADECA, the official exchange office, is often referred to as CADECA. But you can also buy Cuban currency:
(1) in BANKS.
(2) in hotels
For exactly the same rates and 0 risk of scam.
Most tourists don’t know this, so there is never a queue, neither at the bank nor in the hotels.
On Obispo street, there is an exchange office and there are often about thirty tourists queuing in the sun. I pointed them to a bank one street away with exactly the same rates, but they took me for a lol as they absolutely want to change money in a CADECA. Too bad for them!
Attention: to make the change, you must come with a passport.

Where can I change money at the airport?

There are 2 exchange offices outside the airport on the Arrivals level. It is always crowded and the rate is slightly less interesting than at the bank or in the city center (1 EUR = 1.02 CUC at the airport vs. 1 EUR = 1.03 CUC in the city center). Just exchange what it takes to pay the cab + your 1st casa, the rest can be changed in the city center.
If you don’t want to wait in line, go up one floor to the Departure Hall, the exchange office there is often empty. However, it closes at 22H.

Which tickets to ask for?

The agents at the exchange offices are conscientious and make the effort to give you small denominations. They usually give a few 50s and the rest in tens. But if you exchange a lot (500 euros like me), it is convenient to ask for a small part in 5 CUC because cabs, as if by chance, never have small change on them. Absolutely avoid 100 banknotes.
For UPCs: ask for 10 UPC tickets, UPC prices range from 5 UPCs to a maximum of 20 UPCs.

What rates are applied?

The official rate is 1 EUR = 1.07 CUC but the state puts in its pocket 3-4% of the time the exchange rate in April 2017 is 1 EUR = 1.031 CUC everywhere we go (even for withdrawals at the ATM).
The CUC, CUP rate is 1 CUC = 25 CUP on the street, but in the banks, I have a slightly less advantageous rate 1 CUC = 24 CUP.
If you change the dollars, you will be charged an additional 10% penalty, the inconvenience of being an ugly American.

How much money should I bring to Cuba?

We took 2400 euros in cash with us for 26 days (Viazul buses being paid in advance, online) with the objective of not withdrawing anything on the spot. And we spent it all.
Broadly speaking, the main expenses are as follows:
(1) Accommodation: between 25 and 35 CUC per day for two
(2) Food :
– between 3 and 5 CUC the breakfast/person -> 10 CUC/day for two
– 20 CUC to 25 CUC/meal for two, 10% tip included -> 50 CUC/day for two
The cost of street food is anecdotal: between 10 cents and 50 cents each time.
-> 71 CUC to 95 CUC per day for two without transport and without activities (71€ to 95€)
(3) Transportation: Taxi (25 CUC to the airport, 5-7 CUC to the bus station Viazul), bus Viazul (6 CUC to 20 CUC per person depending on the destination), cab colectivo (20 CUC to 80 CUC per person depending on the distance), shuttles around Trinidad and Cienfugos (5 CUC/person)
(4) Visits: 1 to 3 CUC/person to go to the museum. 20 to 25 CUC the horse ride to Vinales. 25 to 30 CUC a dive in the surroundings of Playa Giron. 10 CUC/person the hop-on hop-off bus to Havana. 35CUC/person the excursion El Nicho. 20CUC/person to go to see the pink flames.
In short, this is the Caribbean, not Asia.
Cuba is a pretty safe country, so by hiding the money well in your pocket near your body, or at the bottom of your locked suitcase, in an unexpected place (I hid some in sanitary towels or wrapped it in an old bus ticket), you should be able to avoid robbery.

And the distributors?

For those who aren’t used to walking around with a large amount of money, ATMs exist in tourist cities and are accessible almost 24 hours a day. Some ATMs can allow you to withdraw up to 800CUC at a time.
Before you leave, tell your bank :
1) that you will be in Cuba on such and such a date to authorize operations from Cuba
2) Consider increasing the daily and weekly withdrawal limit. Believe me, you’re going to spend a lot of money here.
But this isn’t the method I recommend, because :

  1. the exchange rate is exactly the same as CADECA’s. For example, I withdraw 100CUC, the machine will ask me if I accept the exchange rate 1EUR = 1.03CUC ? (i.e. the state already takes 4% fee compared to the official rate 1EUR = 1.07CUC). So withdrawing at the ATM just allows you to walk around with less money on you, but in financial terms/fees, it’s the same as the exchange offices, or even more expensive if your bank in France charges you for international withdrawals.
  2. you can’t choose the denominations you want at the vending machine. Certainly, he tries to give you as many 20, 10 and 5 as possible, but 1CUC tickets for taxis/tips are missing.
  3. I came across an Italian couple on Good Friday when all the exchange offices were closed, unable to withdraw money despite their 3 credit cards. I don’t know if it’s because of them: they didn’t warn their bank? or because the Cuban ATMs are capricious. In any case, in a (fairly safe) country where I have to spend 100€/day, bringing cash is always a good solution.
  4. The connection is super slow. I almost had a heart attack when I saw the screen unchanged after inserting my card. I thought my card was swallowed. But no, only 20 seconds later I was asked for my code. You have to be patient everywhere in Cuba.
  5. if you have a card from an American bank, forget about ATMs! They will be refused here.
Note: For reasons X, Y, Z, you are without money in Cuba, know that Western Union exists! Some of them are hidden in CADECA exchange offices.
If you like this guide, check out our article: Ultimate Guide: Cuba in 27 days

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