All you need to know about Cuban money
Cuban currency is unique. It can also be challenging to get your head around, but if you give me 5 minutes of your reading time, I can solve your confusion.
There are two currencies in Cuba: the Cuban Peso Nacional (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Both of these currencies are legal, and contrary to many incorrect websites and blogs you may have read, both Cubans AND foreigners can use BOTH the CUP and the CUC. You just need to know how… so read on.
The CUC is pegged to the dollar and worth around 24 to 25 times as much as the CUP. Got that? Essentially:
1CUC = 1USD
1CUC = 24 or 25 CUP.
When & how to get your CUCs
You can only get your Cuban currency once you are IN Cuba, so forget trying to change it before you travel. Take cash, as much as you think you’ll need, and change it in the airport in Havana once you arrive. You can change it in banks and hotels, too, but it’s a lot easier to just change it all up as soon as you arrive. Finding a bank in Cuba isn’t easy, and when you do locate one, there will be a huge queue (I’m talking hours, not minutes). The exchange rates in the hotels usually aren’t that great, so the airport is your best bet. Do NOT change money on the street or with the owner of your accommodation – see here for common scams and why you shouldn’t trust anyone.
You also aren’t permitted to take Cuban money out of the country after your trip, though a small amount as a souvenir will easily go unnoticed, I’m sure.
Banks and credit/debit cards
You can forget using your debit/credit card to pay for things in Cuba due to limited internet connection on the island (see more about internet in Cuba here).
There are ATMs in most towns, and I have rarely had any issues putting in my HSBC bank card and taking CUC out. But remember, I’m from the UK. If your bank is in any way affiliated with the USA, you won’t be able to take any cash out at all – you can thank the embargo for this. So you’ll need to take all your spending money in cash (USD/EUR/GBP etc) and just exchange it in country.
Many people worry about the safety of carrying all this cash around. Firstly, buy this – my go to for walking around Havana without worrying. But secondly, Cuba is such a safe island – possibly one of the safest countries in the world to travel as a foreigner – read why here.
When to use which currency
Realistically, as a tourist, you only need to think about using the CUC. Anything you pay for, so accommodation, hotels, taxis, meals in restaurants etc, will all be CUC. The only time you would consider paying in CUP is if you are adventurous and use local transportation (buses aka ‘guaguas’) or perhaps buying small bits of food in a market or on the street.
You might be confused in the beginning about when to use which. Ideally you will have understanding of Spanish to be able to get your head around it all, too. For example: you’re in a market and you’re buying some bananas. The vendor says “20 pesos”. You can be pretty much certain that, unless these bananas were made of solid gold, he’s not asking for 20CUC (aka 20USD) for a couple of bananas. He’s wanting 20CUP, which is a little less than 1USD. Got that?
There are some very common scams concerning these two currencies
You need to always be on your watch in Cuba. Scams on foreigners are rife; the Cubans have an innate ability to spot a clueless tourist from a mile off. They know the dual currency system is unique to their island, and a few bad bananas will take advantage of you.
Essentially, ALWAYS double and triple check which change you get back after paying for something. If you give somebody 10CUC (pegged at $10 American Dollars) and you want change, make sure they don’t give you the change in CUP.
Here’s an example that I have seen happen a million times: you’re paying a taxi driver (who you met on the street… which should be your first alarm bell, see here) and he tells you it’s 80CUC from Havana to Viñales. You arrive to Viñales, give him two fifty CUC notes because you don’t have change, and he gives you 20CUP change. 20CUP is a little less than 1CUC. Still don’t get it? He owed you 20CUC ($20) but he gave you less than a dollar change.
Update - July 2020 - the 10% USD tax on buying CUC has been eliminated
All the blogs you will read about money in Cuba will tell you NOT to take USD to exchange in Cuba. This definitely used to be the case, because when you exchanged them here, you had to pay a 10% tax. On July 20th the Cuban government eliminated this tax, and you now will not have to lose the 10% on your dollar.
This was implemented due to the effect of the coronavirus on the island, essentially to get more access to foreign currency.
Anyway, for now, you can now freely bring your USD in to the country and exchange them just as you would with the £ or the € or any other currency.