Tourists use convertible pesos, known as CUC, to purchase goods and services in Cuba. The rate is one-to-one with the American dollar. Local Cubans, however, are paid in pesos, or CUPs, which run around 25 to the dollar. In essence, this system makes tourists pay higher prices and allows the Cuban government to subsidize certain essential items for locals. The government has talked of unifying the dual currencies, which would attract more foreign investment and help prepare the Cuban economy to participate more fully in the global market.
CUCs vs Pesos
CUCs – pronounced “say-oh-says,” but simply called “kooks” by most people – come in the following denominations: 1, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100. There are 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 centavo coins. Travelers must convert their foreign currency to CUCs when arriving in Cuba. The easiest way to do this is to stop by the currency exchange at the airport after arriving in Cuba.
While traveling around the island, try to keep small bills on hand. Oftentimes, stores will have a hard time cashing anything over CUC10, so it’s wise to have a wad of smaller bills with you. If you’re a photographer and want to tip your subjects, it’s best to use 50-centavo coins or CUC1. CUCs are much more valuable to Cubans than the Cuban pesos, as they are worth much more.
All state employees are paid in Cuban pesos. There are 100 centavos to the peso. Pesos can be used to purchase food at Cuban street stalls – including pizza, sandwiches, and coffee – or to buy fruits and veggies in markets. At such places, it may be hard for the purveyor to give you change in CUC, so it will come in handy to have a few pesos on hand. Travel on local buses also requires the use of pesos.
On signs, the peso is often designated by “$” however, CUCs will sometime share this symbol as well. When in doubt, ask which currency is accepted.
Travelers can exchange foreign currency for CUC at banks, hotels, and burós de cambios (exchange bureaus) run by Cadeca. All exchanges are subject to a 3 percent commission charge. If you want Cuban pesos, you can also exchange CUCs and foreign currency for moneda nacional at one of Cadeca’s exchange bureaus. Do note that when exchanging U.S. dollars, you’re subject to an additional 10 percent commission charge, putting the total fee at 13 percent. To avoid this additional 10 percent charge, change U.S. dollars into Canadian dollars or euros before arriving in Cuba.
You may be offered to exchange your money on the street while in Cuba. Don’t do it! Not only is this illegal, but you’re also more likely to be ripped off.
Banks, ATMs, Credit Cards, and Travelers Checks
All Cuban banks are run by the state. Banks are typically open Monday–Saturday from 8 AM to 3 PM. Banco de Crédito y Comercio has branches throughout the island. Banco Financiero Internacional caters to foreigners; Banco Metropolitano and Banco Popular also offer transactions for foreigners. After receiving money from a bank, always check your receipt and count out the money.
ATMs can be used during bank hours (some ATMs will eat your card after the bank closes). Many ATMs are connected to Cirrus and other international systems. Although Americans are now legally allowed to use credit and debit cards in Cuba, the electronic system has not caught up with the law—you’re unlikely be able to us a U.S.-issued credit or debit card to withdraw money from an ATM or bank in Cuba. You can, however, use a non-U.S. credit card to get cash advances from a bank (the limit is CUC5,000).
Hotels, major restaurants, and large shops often accept credit cards. Do note that credit card transactions are subject to an 11 percent commission.
Travelers checks can be cashed at banks and in many hotels. Some stores, restaurants, and hotels will also accept travelers checks.
Costs are somewhat variable in Cuba, due to the government’s strong hand in the economy. However, as of 2015, here is what you can generally expect to pay for goods and services in Cuba:
Casa particulares cost around CUC25 per night. In Havana and other large cities, the going rate is usually CUC30 per night.
Hotels vary based upon location and quality. Most cost between CUC100–CUC300 per night.
Breakfast in a casa will usually run about CUC5. Lunch and dinner in a restaurant can cost between CUC5–CUC25.
Liters of water cost CUC1–CUC2. Local beers cost about the same.
Internet at an Etecsa office costs CUC4.50 per hour. Hotels sometimes charge more.
A 5–10 minute taxi ride will usually cost at least CUC5–CUC10.
Cubans receive very low wages—the average worker is paid about $20 per month. For this reason, it’s extremely important to tip service providers. Tip waiters and waitresses at least ten percent. The same goes for tour guides. Tipping musicians is welcomed, as this is how they earn the majority of their income.