If classic cars, top-shelf cigars, and a step back in time sound appealing, a trip to Cuba may be on your bucket list.  Indeed, the ease of commercial air travel, coupled with the island’s close proximity to the United States, makes for a tempting and unique vacation opportunity.  But it’s not so simple as merely booking a ticket and packing a suitcase.

Treasury Department’s 12 Categories to Authorize A Trip to Cuba

While Americans can travel to Cuba lawfully, the island’s repressive, communist government is under heavy sanctions from the United States.  As a result, the travel must fall within the narrow scope of 12 categories authorized by the Treasury Department:

  • Family visits
  • Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  • Journalistic activity
  • Professional research and professional meetings
  • Educational activities
  • Religious activities
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  • Support for the Cuban people
  • Humanitarian projects
  • Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and
  • Certain authorized export transactions.

Travel for Fun to Cuba is a No-Go

Travel for tourism purposes is prohibited, and there are specific requirements for each of the above categories that must be met before travel under the corresponding “general license” is lawful.  In addition, strict record-keeping requirements exist; travelers must maintain, and present to U.S. authorities on demand, a detailed itinerary of their travel coupled with documentation like receipts proving adherence to that itinerary.  Patronizing business establishments run by the Cuban regime is prohibited, so travelers are required to stay in private homes rented through websites like “Airbnb” and known in Cuba as “casa particulars”.

Requirements Not Suggestions

Unfortunately, many Americans traveling to Cuba have treated the 12 authorized categories of travel and their corresponding requirements as suggestions rather than requirements.  Because enforcement of the rules hasn’t been particularly stringent, most have gotten away with tourism under the loose guise of “support for the Cuban people” or “educational activities”.  But when called to account for their legal compliance during a security clearance background investigation – sometimes years later – they are unable to do so.  The situation occurs with enough frequency that federal agencies know the questions to ask and the documents to demand when they see “Cuba” listed as a prior foreign travel destination on an SF-86.

Get Pre-approval When headed to Cuba

For current clearance holders, the situation is far dicier.  Traveling to one of the world’s most oppressive regimes while having access to U.S. classified information is an extraordinary risk that, for security officials, will naturally be viewed as calling into question the clearance-holder’s judgment.  Travel there is unlikely to be approved by security officials – and, to be clear, pre-approval is required for all current clearance-holders.  Traveling without pre-approval or in defiance of a denial is an almost guaranteed security clearance revocation.

For Clearance Holders, Better to Ask Permission Than Beg For Forgiveness

With all that being said, there are still circumstances under which Americans (most likely, non-clearance holders) can travel to Cuba.  If you choose to do so, it is wise to first carefully research the law and consider contacting the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for review and approval of your itinerary.  Adherence with the law is always important, but it is a pre-requisite to later obtaining a security clearance if you have any such designs for the future.  For more information, the U.S. Embassy in Cuba provides helpful information and links to pertinent resources.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit www.bigleylaw.com