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As a non-US citizen (J-1 visitor status) I am traveling this weekend to Cuba from the USA on a JetBlue flight (Boston-Fort Lauderdale-Havana, Havana-Fort Lauderdale-Boston). As a visitor "located" in the US, I apparently fall under American law, meaning "tourism" is prohibited. I am traveling on an "educational purpose" (OFAC licence, approved through my affidavit), independently, without an agency or an official invitation. Reading through OFAC documentation I interpreted that independent travel is possible if a 24-hour schedule of people-to-people interaction is provided (OFAC doesn't detail on whether, how and where they verify that matter).

I have prepared so far: written list of Cuban houses where I stay and interact with people, places that I visit (museums, schools), local taxi company that lead me to these places, and an oral statement on how this trip relates to my research. I wonder if this is sufficient.

Does anybody have recent experience (since September 2016, and in best case as a US-visitor) regarding what customs border protection officials (both in the USA and in Cuba) require as documentation/statements (if they do) to prove the "educational purpose"?

Your help is much appreciated

  • 3
    As I understand it, border officials in Cuba are not concerned with US restrictions on US citizens visiting their country. It may be difficult to predict what interest US border officers might have in your visit to Cuba, since such trips haven't been taking place for a very long time. – phoog Dec 20 '16 at 21:48
  • A CBP officer might ask you about your activities in Cuba when you return to the US. – Michael Hampton Dec 20 '16 at 22:22
  • @ZachLipton OP has to be able to prove that his visit was licenced. I missed the fact earlier that they're flying in on a direct flight – Crazydre Dec 20 '16 at 23:29
  • @MARTA J - how did it go? Given your circumstance it looks like you have experienced the travel firsthand. Care to share with the community? – Sergii Zaskaleta Mar 14 '17 at 18:38
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Firstly, the Cubans don't care about the US's restrictions at all, so you'll have no problems with them.

When it comes to the US, anecdotal evidence suggests that US citizens won't face legal repercussions in practice (though they may be asked what they did in Cuba and/or be yelled at)

As a foreigner, however, you are much more vulnerable - you have absolutely no rights at the US border. In essence, if they don't like something you did, they can simply revoke your visa and status on the spot, send you home and ban you from re-entering (or even changing planes there) for many years to come (although as a visa holder, you can appeal through an immigration judge - whether that would be likely to be successful, I do not know).

Of course it will depend on the person you get at the booth, but visas have been revoked in the past for even lesser things, so the possibility, although perhaps not very high, is very real.

From the Department of State website:

The regulations require that persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction be licensed in order to engage in any travel-related transactions pursuant to travel to, from, and within Cuba, or that the transactions in question be exempt from licensing requirements. Transactions related to travel for tourist activities are not licensable. This restriction includes travel to Cuba for tourist activites from or through a third country, such as Mexico or Canada. U.S. law enforcement authorities enforce these regulations at U.S. airports and pre-clearance facilities in third countries. Travelers who fail to comply with Department of the Treasury regulations may face civil penalties and criminal prosecution upon return to the United States.

Someone I know is a US green card holder (i.e. permanent resident) and was allegedly (though it's not yet confirmed to me) very close to being deported from the US for life after he was caught at the border with a Cuban passport stamp (in February 2016). Fortunately he's rich and could afford an excellent solicitor, whereby the immigration judge (narrowly) decided to suspend his removal proceedings.

"Yet I do not have any official documents (from the USA or Cuba)."

You need to get something from your educational insitution. You are allowed to go to Cuba licenced, but you need to be able to prove at the US border that your visit was in fact licenced. It's very strange that no evidence whatsoever has been provided by your insitution.

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    You seem to be assuming that the US will have a problem with this person traveling to Cuba. Do you have any actual reason to believe this will be the case? If so, can you share it? – Michael Hampton Dec 20 '16 at 22:46
  • @MichaelHampton Just edited it – Crazydre Dec 20 '16 at 22:48
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    This answer does not seem to reflect the more recent changes in the regulations, under which there are general licenses to go to Cuba. The question is about how to document that you've complied with the license conditions and whether you'll be asked to show proof of that on return to the US, not whether they'll deport you for life if you don't hide the fact that you've been to Cuba (and hiding such a thing is just going to make you look stupid or like a liar when you're taking a direct flight from Havana on JetBlue). – Zach Lipton Dec 20 '16 at 23:16
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    @Crazydre: maybe then worth marking this as unconfirmed hearsay? – George Y. Dec 20 '16 at 23:20
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    @GeorgeY. until 2003, the US Customs Service was a part of the Treasury department. Surely, the replacing US Customs and Border Protection agency continues to enforce Treasury regulations as they apply to travelers and goods arriving from overseas. – phoog Dec 20 '16 at 23:44
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Cuban side has been addressed by both great answers above, which I concur with. Which leaves us with the US side only.

First, travel ban to Cuba (in reality it is ban to spend money in Cuba without license, as the government cannot prohibit travel per se) is only affecting persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction. What is jurisdiction? This means you have to be US citizen (permanent residents also are sometime considered, although this is questionable), or be physically present where US government exercises control. Otherwise you're not under US jurisdiction, and thus the law does not apply to you. Notably having a US visa doesn't by itself subject you to US jurisdiction outside the US, and thus there could be no possible restrictions if you took a connecting flight such as US-Mexico-Cuba.

However in your case you're traveling on a direct flight, and under affidavit. Generally an affidavit alone is enough (if not, you'd be asked to submit supporting documentation when you submit affidavit). Note, however, that the affidavit is submitted not to the airline - who could care less - but to US Government. And submitting a false affidavit to government is a crime. Thus you might be probed (questioning is more likely) by the CBP official on your arrival to the USA to ensure you did not submit a false affidavit.

On the other hand, the legality of the license requirement itself for private citizens to spend money overseas was never challenged in the court, and it is unclear whether our government has an authority to issue such prohibition (effectively trying to make laws for a sovereign country). The prosecution details I've found so far were related to hiding the fact one's been to Cuba (i.e. lying to CBP officials), or bringing undeclared goods, such as Cuban cigars, which is a different story.

  • "The government cannot prohibit travel per se": why not? – phoog Dec 20 '16 at 23:19
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    The Travel state Website says "Tourist travel to Cuba is prohibited under U.S. law for U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and others subject to U.S. jurisdiction." As such, not only citizens and perm. residents are subject to US jurisdiction. Do you know anything about this? – Crazydre Dec 20 '16 at 23:23
  • Constitution does not give the government such authority. Only interstate commerce could be regulated by acts of Congress. – George Y. Dec 20 '16 at 23:23
  • @Crazydre: yes, if you're on US soil, aboard of certain vessels or certain places (such as US Embassy/Consulate, or possibly military base), you are under US jurisdiction. As soon as you leave it, well, you're not under US jurisdiction anymore. – George Y. Dec 20 '16 at 23:25
  • @Crazydre US law is a bit complicated on this point and the State Department has oversimplified a bit. It's not the travel per se that is banned, but the spending money. The US Constitution has been interpreted as not allowing the government to restrict the travel of people in most circumstances. – Michael Hampton Dec 20 '16 at 23:33

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