The Two Currencies in Cuba
There are two currencies used in Cuba- Cuban Pesos (CUP) and Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Locals call CUP “Coop” or “moneda nacional” and CUC “Cook”. CUP is for Cubans and CUC is for tourists. Contrary to most information, you can use CUP as a tourist, but you can only obtain it at a casa de cambio (exchange house), not at the banks. Don’t exchange too much money into CUP because you will use it less than CUC and the things you can buy with CUP are extremely cheap (ie. street food can cost the equivalent to 10 cents).
1 CUC equals about 25 CUP, which is a huge difference. CUC is on par with the US dollar, so when you see CUC, think of the USD exchange.
Use CUC for taxis, buses, accommodation and tourist stuff. Use CUP for street food, local stores and local restaurants.
If a price is listed in CUP, you can also pay in CUC. But this doesn’t work the other way around.
Exchanging to the Cuban Currencies
Exchange your foreign currency for CUC at a bank for the best rate. You can only get CUP at a casa de cambio (exchange house), not the banks. Some banks won’t accept bills with small rips or tears. Always bring your passport to exchange money, expect long lines at the banks and exchange houses and always count the amount you’re given in the exchange.
ATMs and Credit Cards
Except in major hotels, you should not expect to pay for anything with a credit or debit card anywhere in Cuba. There are ATMs (cajero automaticos) in Cuba, but not as many as you’ll be used to, and most are found in the touristy cities like Havana, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba and Varadero etc. The ATMs should work for Visa, MasterCard and non-US banks, but cash is king. I met an Australian traveler who successfully used his debit card at an ATM in Cuba, but I brought all my cash with me because I have enough problems with my ATM cards many places I travel at the best of times. Many nationalities can use Visa cash advance at an ATM or you can try a Visa or MasterCard cash advance within a bank if it doesn’t work in the ATM. But it’s recommended to bring all of your spending money to Cuba, if possible, just in case.
I went to Cuba with the expectation that the ATMs wouldn’t work for me, so I brought all of the cash I thought I would need, plus extra, just in case. I traveled to Cuba from Mexico after traveling Central America for 2.5 months, so I brought Mexican Pesos, which were equal to about $800US and I definitely did not use it all. No, it’s never ideal to carry this much cash on you anywhere in the world, but luckily, Cuba is a safe country. Another piece of important information to note is that if you’re not going to Cuba straight from home with your cash, like I was, you’ll likely need to withdraw your cash over a few days, depending on your withdrawal limit.
In summary, bring more money than you think you’ll need.
Make sure you count your change and pay attention to which currency you’re receiving any time there is a money exchange. Sometimes people will try scam you by switching the currencies (i.e. you pay in CUC and they give you CUP as change). 1 CUC = about 25 CUP, which is a huge difference. CUC is on par with the US dollar, so when you see CUC, think of the USD exchange.
Some of this might not make much sense until you arrive in Cuba. It is confusing at first, but you will get used to it.
For more important information on traveling Cuba, see Traveling Cuba Independently – Tips, Facts and What to Expect.