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Can I get an ESTA if I’ve been to Cuba?

By Nita Nicole Upadhye

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Can I get an ESTA if I’ve been to Cuba?

Following a change in policy in 2023, you can no longer visit the US visa-free with ESTA if you have travelled to Cuba since January 12, 2021. For affected travellers, this does not equate to an outright ban on travel to the US; but it does mean you are no longer eligible for ESTA authorization and you will instead need to apply for a visa before you can travel to the USA.

In this guide, we explain the ESTA rules affecting those who have been to Cuba and what you now need to do to secure permission to travel to the USA.


ESTA eligibility rules

To visit the United States, you will usually need either a visitor visa to enter or transit the USA or a visa waiver under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). An ESTA is the permission granted to eligible foreign citizens to travel to the United States without a visa under what is known as the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

The VWP permits citizens of certain partner countries (such as the UK, France and Japan) to travel to the US for up to 90 days for the purposes of tourism or unpaid business activities without needing a visa. In return, those same countries permit US citizens to travel to their countries visa-free for business or pleasure for a similar length of time. Where eligible under the VWP, ESTA is the automated system used to screen foreign citizens before they travel to the US, in this way helping to eliminate any law enforcement or security risks posed by overseas visitors.

To travel visa-free, visitors are required to make an application by completing an online form and answering certain questions to determine eligibility. Certain checks are then run using the answers provided and the information held about you on certain systems available to US immigration authorities. You will then either be approved for ESTA, or your application will be denied if you are found to be ineligible.

For example, you cannot apply for a visa waiver under ESTA after visiting Cuba since January 12, 2021. You will also not normally be eligible for a visa waiver if you have visited certain countries on or after March 2011. These include Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen, unless you were in one of these countries for military or official purposes. You will also be ineligible for visa-free travel under the VWP if are a dual national of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan or Syria, although you can again apply for a visitor visa.

Equally, you cannot apply for an ESTA visa waiver if you:

  • have ever been arrested, even if your arrest did not result in a criminal conviction
  • have a criminal record
  • have ever been refused admission or deported from the US
  • have previously overstayed under an ESTA visa waiver.

Having a history of criminality or immigration violations does not prevent you from applying for a visitor visa to travel to the United States, although you may need to apply for a ‘Waiver of Ineligibility’. This is where the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) adjudicates your eligibility to come to the USA, taking into account the nature and seriousness of any past actions. While the vast majority of visa applications are approved, US law sets out many standards under which a visa application may be denied, including where your conduct in the United States or abroad may make you ineligible for a visa.

In some cases, you may be found to be permanently ineligible to receive a US visa, resulting in a lifetime exclusion from the United States while, in others, you may still be able to travel to the US but a decision on your visitor visa may be significantly delayed.


ESTA eligibility after visiting Cuba

Under the current rules, you cannot apply for a visa waiver under ESTA after visiting Cuba since 12 January 2021, where you must instead apply for a visa. This is because Cuba was designated on this date by the United States Government as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. As such, with limited exceptions only, any traveller who is found to have visited Cuba on or after the 12 January 2021 will not be eligible for travel under the VWP using ESTA. Only those who were in Cuba to perform military service in the armed forces, or in order to carry out official duties as a full-time government employee, will still be eligible to apply.

Additionally, any traveller who at the time of applying for an ESTA holds dual nationality with both a VWP-country and Cuba will not be eligible for travel under the VWP and must instead apply for a visa to visit or transit the United States. If an ESTA has already been approved and it is later determined that the traveller has been present in Cuba, or holds dual nationality with both a VWP-country and Cuba, the ESTA will be revoked.

Fortunately, for those of you keen to travel to USA after visiting Cuba, the question as to whether or not you can you apply for an ESTA is very different to whether you can apply for a US visa.

Ineligibility for an ESTA is not a bar against travelling to the United States, where the fact that you have been to Cuba does not prohibit you from visiting the USA. This just means that you cannot use the automated ESTA system to apply for a visa waiver, where you will need to apply for a visitor visa in advance. An approved travel authorization is not the same as a visa, as this does not meet the legal or regulatory requirements to stand in place of a US visa when a visa is required under United States law.


Can you visit the US without ESTA?

If you are not eligible to apply for an ESTA but would still like to visit the United States, you must apply for a visitor visa in advance of travel. When applying for an ESTA, this can be done just 72 hours prior to departure by completing an online pre-registration form on the ESTA website. In contrast, applying for a visa can take several weeks, if not months in some cases, where applicants are advised not to confirm any travel arrangements before securing a visa. This also means that if you apply for an ESTA shortly prior to any planned travel date, but authorization is denied, you will not have sufficient time to secure a visa instead.

You will usually be notified of the decision on your ESTA application within 72 hours, although the majority of decisions are reached within 48 hours. However, it is worth noting that ESTA applications can often be flagged for additional security checks, where a pending application for an ESTA signifies that additional screening is necessary to process your application so as to ensure that you do not pose either a security or immigration risk. Any denial under ESTA only prohibits travel under the VWP. It is not a final determination of eligibility for a visa to travel to the US, but it can mean delaying your travel plans.

It is also worth noting that if you are dishonest about your travel history, or any other questions asked of you when applying for an ESTA, this can have serious repercussions, where the existing ESTA application was updated in 2023 to add questions focusing on an applicant’s travel and connection to Cuba. If you attempt to travel visa-free under the VWP and, as a result, have to make a false declaration to any of the questions asked as part of the ESTA process, including recent travel to Cuba, this will amount to a criminal offence under US law punishable by imprisonment. If you are caught lying on an ESTA application, this can also make it more difficult to apply for a visa to travel to the US in the future, as any visa application will highlight the fact that you have travelled illegally in the past.

The major benefits of an ESTA are that it is much cheaper than a visitor visa, with a fee of just $21 USD compared with $185 USD for a visa, and does not require a visit to your local Embassy or Consulate. However, there are also some advantages to applying for a visa over an ESTA. In particular, a visitor visa may be valid for up to 10 years versus a general 2-year validity period for an ESTA, with the option to stay in the USA for up to 6 months at a time, rather than just 90 days. A US visa-traveller may also seek to extend their stay beyond 6 months in certain circumstances, or switch to a different classification of visa while in the United States, neither of which is allowed under the VWP.


Apply for a US visitor visa if ineligible for ESTA

If you are not eligible to travel visa-free under the VWP, you may instead apply for a visitor visa at any US Embassy or Consulate, typically in your country of residence. There are two types of visitor visa: the B-1 visa (for business trips) or the B-2 visa (for tourism or visiting friends and family). As part of the application process, you must complete Form DS-160 (Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application) and pay the non-refundable application fee.

US law also generally requires visa applicants to be interviewed in-person by a consular officer. You will need to schedule an appointment and attend with your supporting documentation. During your visa interview, the consular officer will determine if you qualify for the type of visitor visa sought. You may be advised that further administrative processing is needed or that you need to apply for a waiver of ineligibility, otherwise your visa application will either be approved or denied on the day of interview.

Visa appointments are limited, where the current waiting time is 110 calendar days for the US Embassy in London. You must therefore plan your application as far ahead as possible before travel although, if you need to travel urgently, you may be able to request an expedited interview through the US Embassy’s appointment service provider.

To be eligible for either a B-1 business visa or a B-2 tourist visa, you must satisfy all of the following visitor visa requirements:

  • The purpose of your trip is to enter the United States temporarily for the purposes of either business and/or tourism
  • You plan to stay in the United States for a specific limited period only
  • You have evidence of sufficient funds to cover your expenses during the course of your trip in the United States
  • You have a residence outside the United States, plus any other binding ties, that will ensure your departure from the USA at the end of your stay.

In support of your application and when attending your consular interview, you must bring:

  • a print-out of your appointment confirmation
  • a print-out of the confirmation page for Form DS-160
  • your application fee payment receipt
  • a 5 x 5 cm (2” by 2”) colour photograph taken within the last 6 months, unless you have successfully uploaded a photograph during the online application process
  • your passport or other valid travel document
  • proof of funds to pay for your trip
  • proof of your residence abroad to which you intend to return.

In addition, you may also need to provide evidence of your status in the country in which you reside; any previously issued US visas; any serious communicable medical condition; any arrests, convictions or cautions; and being denied entry to or deported from the US.


Will a visitor visa guarantee permission to enter the United States?

Neither a visitor visa nor an ESTA will guarantee entry to the United States, but rather only mean that you are eligible to board a carrier to travel to the USA. It remains at the discretion of immigration officials at the port-of-entry to determine your eligibility for admission, where Customs and Border Protection officers have the right to permit or deny your request to enter the country. You must be prepared to answer various questions that may be asked of you. You may also need to provide documentation to prove the purpose of your visit and to show that you can fund your entire stay, otherwise risk being denied entry.


Visiting US after Cuba FAQs

Can Canadians go to the USA if they have been to Cuba?

Canadian citizens generally do not need an ESTA or a visitor visa for the purposes of tourism in the US, or to undertake business activities, which means that visiting Cuba should not impact their entitlement to travel to the USA.


Can Cuban citizens travel to USA?

Cuban citizens can travel to the USA and although the US Embassy in Havana doesn’t currently process B2 visas for tourist travel, a visa appointment can be requested at any overseas US Embassy or Consulate providing nonimmigrant visa services.


How much is the ESTA visa fee?

The fee to apply for a visa waiver under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is currently $21 USD. If denied an ESTA, you will instead need to apply for a visitor visa at a cost of $185 USD.


Are U.S. borders open to Cuba?

US borders are open to Cuban citizens, although they will first need to apply for a visa to travel to the US. Those who have recently travelled to Cuba will also need a visa, rather than an ESTA visa waiver.

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.


Founder & Principal Attorney Nita Nicole Upadhye is a recognized leader in the field of US business immigration law, (The Legal 500, Who's Who Legal and AILA) and an experienced and trusted advisor to large multinational corporates through to SMEs. She provides strategic immigration advice and specialist application support to corporations and professionals, entrepreneurs, investors, artists, actors and athletes from across the globe to meet their US-bound talent mobility needs.

Nita is an active public speaker, thought leader, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals.

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