With a somewhat weird two currency monetary system and a very unique political/social situation Cuba's foreign currency exchange can appear a bit daunting for a first time visitor, but with some basic info most people should be able to grasp the essentials without too much trouble.

Here are a few thoughts...

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Cuba is like most other foreign destinations, you bring a major foreign currency and exchange it into the local currency to make purchases while you’re there. Cuban currency is NOT traded internationally, so you can’t buy it in advance. You buy it when you arrive in Cuba.

1.) The major legal currency for Cuba is the Cuban Convertible Peso, CUC. It’s what you exchange your foreign currency for and make all your purchases with in Cuba. Most tourists will only ever deal with CUC. For international exchange purposes 1.00 Cuban Convertible Peso = $1.00 USD.   Note that there is a 10% penalty charged when exchanging USA dollars cash, so, you will only receive 87 centavos CUC for one USA dollar when changing the money, allowing for the 10% penalty and a 3% currency exchange fee. This is discussed further below. 

2.) The second legal currency in Cuba is the simple and lowly Cuban Peso, CUP, which is rarely used by the vast majority of tourists, but it’s still something you should know about as it is perfectly legal for tourists to use it. For example, you can pay the ride in old taxies anywhere in Cuba in CUP. They cost berween 10 CUP and 20 CUP per person depending on the distance and destination. However, you can pay for the service in CUC as well. Just be aware that there is no way to pay 10 CUP in CUC, so that will cost you 50 centavos CUC, which is 12 CUPs. You can also use CUP in local shops where Cubans buy their provisions.

Outside of a resort or hotel when you're travelling independently it’s always handy to have a few Cuban Pesos on you. You get about 24 of them for 1 Convertible Peso.

Street food like sandwiches and pizza, fresh fruit drinks and other small purchases are all incredibly cheap. Once you get a feel for Cuba – if you speak a little Spanish it will be even better – there are peso bars and restaurants that can be quite interesting. Movies are cheap too. 

Both types of Pesos, CUC and CUP, are legal tender in Cuba and both are completely available to anyone – including foreigners – with no restrictions whatsoever . You can exchange your CUC for CUP at any bank and most non-resort and non-airport Cadecas.

As a first-time visitor to Cuba though or as a resort tourist venturing off the resort for the day you can easily handle ALL your transactions with Convertible Pesos, CUC.

Lastly, if you leave a tip, leave it in CUC.

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It's not uncommon in certain situations to be scammed by being charged in CUC but given your change in CUP. Therefore it's a good idea to know how to recognize the two different currencies:

Note: The 3 CUP bill with the image of Che makes a nice inexpensive souvenir.

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Accurate Exchange Rates: All the internet currency exchange sites (like coinmill.com, xe.com, oanda.com, x-rates.com, etc.) are useless for real budgeting because they only give mid-market rates, ignoring the buy/sell costs that you'll be charged at the bank or Cadeca in Cuba.

At present here is the ONLY website that gives you the exact exchange rates that you will receive at the Bank in Cuba.

http://www.bc.gob.cu/Espanol/tipo_cam...

It's in Spanish, but it's very easy to decipher. Here's how it works...

1.) The first column, "Compra" (Purchase) is the rate they're charging you to BUY Cuban Convertible Pesos, CUC.

2.) The second column, "Venta" (Sell) is the rate they're charging you to SELL Cuban Convertible Pesos, CUC.

UK and European travellers: See the asterisk (*) beside the GBP and EUR? That means you multiply instead of divide .

USA travellers: Don't forget to subtract an additional 10% for the surcharge that Cuba charges against your USD - it's the only foreign currency that gets hit with this additional fee. This means $100 USD always equals 87 CUC.

In the past, the Mexican Peso had been considered a poor choice in Cuba, as well, because the exchange rate approximated the 10% surcharge the USD faces.  This has recently been changing, since the spring of 2016.  At times, the exchange rate for Mexican pesos has ben much better, but it has varied a lot.  Since late August of 2016, the rate has stayed fairly consistently good, but there is still a risk that it will revert back to how it was before.

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As you can see from the Banco Central de Cuba website mentioned above these foreign currencies are accepted Cuba:

  • Canadian Dollars CAD
  • Pound Sterling GBP
  • Mexican Pesos MXN
  • Danish Krone DKK
  • Norwegian Krone NOK
  • Swedish Krona SEK
  • Japanese Yen JPY 
  • Euro EUR.
  • Swiss Francs CHF
  • US Dollars USD (Don't forget the additional 10% surcharge mentioned above.)

Note: Not all banks and Cadecas will handle all these currencies, so to cash your Krone, Krona, etc. you sometimes may have to go to a main branch.

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Where to exchange your foreign currency:

1.) The best exchange rate is at any bank.

2.) The next best exchange rate is at any Cadeca. A Cadeca (Casa de Cambio which means House of Exchange) is a government exchange facility. They're located at airports, many resorts and hotels and at locations all over the Island.

3.) The worst rate can potentially be over-the-counter at any hotel or resort because the rate is not regulated by the government.

If you're an independent traveller or a long term visitor and paying everything in CUC then exchanging at a bank is obviously the most sensible option.

With few exceptions CUP is available at most non-resort Cadecas, non-Airport Cadecas and Banks.

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Very Important: You require your Passport for ALL currency exchanges.

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Accepted Currency: Always bring new(ish) bank notes, with no rips, tears or markings. Large denominations like $50 & $100 Canadian bills are not a problem, nor are the new Canadian polymer bills an issue.

All foreign coins are useless, same as almost anywhere else in the world. Resort workers or any Cuban in contact with foreigners will accept them, but then you're burdening another tourist with the task of exchanging the coins back into paper cash. In other words, Canadians, leave those Loonies and Toonies at home!

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#1 Tourist Scam in Cuba: Unfortunately it's money exchange. Fortunately though it's also 100% easily avoidable. Always take a calculator with you so you know the correct amount of CUC that should be coming to you. If you don’t have a calculator do NOT accept any transaction that doesn't come with a printed receipt. Take your time and re-count your money in front of the teller. Do not feel rushed!

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Getting rid of your Cuban Convertible Pesos: You can exchange your leftover CUC at the airport when you leave, but naturally you'll lose money in the exchange. A much better way to handle your CUC is to budget wisely during the last few days of your trip so you don’t arrive at the airport loaded with useless CUC. Bring enough to buy a snack and whatever you wish at Duty Free or save it for your next trip. (Remember though, technically you aren't supposed to take CUC and CUP out of Cuba.)

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Lastly...

1.) Travellers Cheques: They are more hassle than they're worth. They're sometimes difficult to exchange and when you do find a place to accept them you pay a commission to cash them. If they do get lost or stolen they can't be replaced until you return home.

American Express Travellers are accepted at BFI (Banco Financiero Internacional) and BM (Banco Metropoliano) and many Cadecas but are too subject to usual 10% fee. If you do bring them as emergency back-up remember you must have all the original purchase receipts with you.

US tourists should investigate any cost advantage to exchanging their USDs into another foreign currency in order to help lessen the 10% surcharge that Cuba levies against US cash. USD to CAD to CUC is sometimes a little cheaper than exchanging USD directly to CUC. Do the math!

2.) Canadian Credit Cards: Any of the "Big Five" Canadian banks are fine. Royal Bank, TD/Canada Trust, Bank of Montreal, Bank of Nova Scotia and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

No problems with PC Financial or Canadian Tire Mastercards as well. And for our friends in Quebec the National Bank Mastercard and Desjardins Visa also work too.

Canadian Debit Cards: Canadian Debit Cards were useless in Cuba but this is finally starting to change. The CIBC Advantage Visa Debit Card is now joined by the TD Canada Trust Visa Debit Card and the Visa Desjardins Prepaid Card working in Cuban ATMs (and Banks and Cadecas) because they display the Visa symbol on the card. Until this becomes common though do NOT assume your Debit Card will be of any use there. Any card without a Visa or Mastercard symbol is useless.

3.) UK/European Credit and Debit Cards:  Many North American and UK/European Global Debit and Credit Cards like Barclays, Lloyds TSB, Nationwide, Bank of Scotland ( not RBS), Post Office, Yorkshire, Tesco, Halifax, etc. are fine.

Of course they have to be non US affiliated and display the Visa or Mastercard symbol. Visa will work in an ATM, Mastercard means a trip inside to deal with a teller.

Lastly, most UK credit cards now charge a foreign transaction fee of 2.75% which they disguise in the exchange rate back to Sterling. National's rate is lower and Post Office doesn't have this charge at all. Contact your card supplier to confirm their charges.

4.) Australian Credit and Debit Cards - It has been reported that some Australian credit and debit cards are no longer, as of 15 Jan 2015, accepted in Cuba. Subsequent investigation could not confirm this with a degree of certainty, as some people claimed that their cards did work but did not say which banks issued their cards. Your cards may work fine, provided the issuing bank has no connection with the US, but you must advise your bank before the travel that you are going to Cuba. The exceptions are the credit and debit cards issued by Citi bank and all pre-purchased Visa and Mastercard Travel Cards. These are not working.

5.) Useless Credit/Debit Cards: Citi Bank, Capital One, Maestro, MBNA, AMX, any Mastercard from a Canadian Credit Union, Diners, Egg, Santander/RBS, Abbey, Abbey National, Alliance & Leicester, etc. are some of the United States affiliated cards that are useless in Cuba. 

6.) Credit Card versus Cash: There is no extra fee in Cuba for using a credit card. Your Credit Card may be subject to a Foreign Transaction Fee at your home Bank, but there are no additional charges in Cuba. Your credit card purchase in Cuba will be converted from CUC to USD then when the transaction is posted to your statement it will be converted to your local currency.

Hope this info helps!