In Cuba, the main currency is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and it’s the one that usually travelers use. Sometimes tourists get some Cuban Pesos to pay a few things like collective taxis or to use in the farmer’s market but it’s not very usual.
What currency to bring ?
You will have to convert your money upon arrival as Cuba’s currency is not internationally traded.
Bringing all the cash you’ll need for your trip is a requirement. You can exchange Euros, Canadian dollars, and British pounds for convertible pesos (CUC ) as these currencies get the best exchange rates. Because of the fees involved in all exchanges between CUC and U.S. dollars (there’s an additional 10 percent tax) you might not want to change all your money at once at the airport because the exchange rates are higher there and in the hotels. It’s easy to exchange money at hotels as you go as there’s usually a CADECA money exchange office or at the front desk.
Cuba operates on a dual currency system. Visitors will use the convertible peso (CUC), while locals mostly use the Peso Cubano (CUP), also called “moneda nacional”. This will be confusing at first, but you’ll get used to it quickly. Funny enough, Convertible Pesos (CUC) are valued at 1 to 1 with the U.S. Dollar, while the Peso Cubano (CUP), stands at about 24 pesos per dollar. Whether it is CUC or CUP, Cubans simply call it “pesos”. So, when someone says this is “2 pesos,” you should make sure which one he is referring to as the amount is substantially different. You can ask, “is this in CUC or Moneda Nacional ?” Or, if the price seems to be really high, then most probably it is in CUP.
It’s better not to exchange money on the street with strangers as you could be easily tricked into getting Cuban Pesos.
Visa & MasterCard are accepted by the majority of hotels and some restaurants. In small towns, cash will be needed. There are just ATMs in the bigger cities.
Credit cards must be issued by non-US banks for them to be accepted. You will want to make sure your debit/credit card will work there.
Where to exchange ?
While you can change part of your money into CUC at the airport on your arrival, you will get better rates at a Cuban bank or at CADECA kiosks (CAsas DE CAmbio – exchange bureaus). The exchange rates at hotels is also higher.
If you end up with some leftover CUC at the end of your trip, you can pay the steep fees to change them back to U.S. dollars (allowed within Cuba only) — or you can spend it on more rum, cigars (up to $100 worth as allowed by U.S. customs), and incredible (affordable) Cuban art.