Clearing Havana Immigration & Customs: A How to
Clearing Customs and Immigration in a new country can always be a bit of a challenge. You want to make sure you’ve got your Visas, Customs, and all forms together. Add Cuba to the mix (where information about Cuban visas and Immigration forms is scarce) and you’ve got a perfect storm of confusion.
After our really awesome and enjoyable inaugural flight from LAX to HAV on Alaska, we were the first two passengers to deplane. We wanted to make sure we were quick to do so as we didn’t want to get stuck behind a plane’s worth of people.
Our hearts sunk when the purser came on the PA and mentioned there was a chance we’d be deplaning through the aft doors. That would put as literally as the last ones out and through immigration, then sanidad check, then customs and trying to get a taxi at that moment would have been a freaking mess. Luckily, since this was literally the first time, it was just a misunderstanding and they deplaned through both doors with the caveat that they opened the forward door first to let all first class out (for pictures and interviews) and once we were done, they let everyone else out through both doors.
By then, we were guided inside the building by bilingual airport employees who were smiling and trying to make the process as efficient as possible. After we walked all of 100 feet from the plane and went into the airport building, I was the first one to get to one of the immigrations agents. Mind you, you do not see the agents until you have reached their stations as they’re behind frosted glass, so the key here is to see if their desk’s light is on; make sure to pay attention as I noticed there were people waiting in line on a different desk when there were plenty of other positions open.
The agent welcomed me to Havana and asked me for my passport, Cuban travel card and boarding pass in English as they were perfectly aware this group was the inaugural flight.
She asked me for the reason of my visit and I swapped to Spanish for my answer. It made her happy when I said we were here to find out all the beautiful things Cuba has to offer and sad that it had taken so long for us to do so, and she was curious to know why she was looking at an Italian passport but hearing Spanish from someone flying in from the US. She smiled all the time and after handing back my passport with a hot pink stamp, half of the travel card (which you MUST retain in order to be allowed off the island) and said ‘Bienvenido a La Habana, que tenga una linda estancia’ as she buzzed me in through a frosted glass door.
Once officially in Cuba, all I had to do was walk 20 feet to a group of smiling ladies manning the security scanners who made sure to have some trays ready for me to put my stuff in and also welcomed me to Havana. As I was lifting my bag onto the conveyor belt I heard the buzzing of a door behind me and it was Jon walking in as he was done with his immigration officer. We quickly went through the scanners and after another 20 feet a group of four smiling doctors in white coats kindly asked for our affidavit of good health; after a quick glance through it, they once again smiled and said ‘Bienvenidos a La Habana’ and waved us in.
At this point we hadn’t checked any bags and had nothing to declare so we turned in our customs declarations to the agents and went straight out.
We quickly realized we should have exchanged currency inside the terminal, but at a glance we noticed there was quite a line waiting to do so (yes, this is Cuba – check your instant gratification before flying there). We decided to ditch the exchange house and ask one of the several taxi drivers if they would just take dollars. Unsurprisingly, he said yes and we were quickly on our way to the Four Points Havana. Just for reference, this cab fare shouldn’t cost you more than 30/35 dollars or Cuban convertible currency, and you might be able to do some negotiation depending on how much of a tourist you look like and how good/bad your Spanish skills are.
Not sure why all of the other reviews we have seen about US flights bound for Havana have been such horrible experiences or mediocre at best. All in all, ours was probably a 15-minute breeze through the airport from walking into terminal 2 till we walked out, and we only interacted with happy, courteous and helpful employees. Once again, a reminder to keep an open mind and, when needed, your expectations low enough to be pleasantly surprised.