Do Britons travelling to the US really need a visa if they’ve visited Cuba?

The vast majority of UK visitors to America enter through the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation – Esta. This is the swift, cheap and easy online permit. But the US government insists that any visit to Cuba since 1 March 2011 disqualifies British holidaymakers from the Esta scheme.

Instead, they must spend $160 (£143) on a full visa – and attend an interview at the US Embassy in London or the Consulate-General in Belfast. The backlog for appointments is stretching for months.

Why is this happening and what are the consequences? These are the key questions and answers.

What’s the problem?

Sixty years ago, on 3 February 1962, the US introduced its first economic sanctions against Cuba. The emergence of a communist nation so close to American shores, combined with the seizing of US-owned property and infrastructure in Cuba, prompted the first round of sanctions to be introduced. These have gradually expanded to the tangle of Treasury regulations that bind US-Cuba dealings today.

In one of his last acts as US president, Donald Trump added Cuba to the American list of “state sponsors of terrorism” (SST). His successor, Joe Biden, has left the designation in place.

Effectively, the Americans are saying: if you were foolish enough to take a holiday in the Caribbean’s biggest and most beautiful island at any time over the past 11 years, you have written off the chance of smooth travel to the US. And, in future, travellers will have to decide between travel to Cuba or easy access to America.

But is there confusion over the date of travel?

Yes. The US State Department insists that the designation is backdated 11 years.  In a statement, The Independent was told: “Any visit to an SST on or after March 1, 2011, even if the country was designated yesterday, renders the applicant ineligible for Esta.”

Confusingly, other official sources – including the American Embassy in Paris, and some travel agents – say the ban on using the Esta scheme applies only from 12 January 2021. This was when the outgoing president ranked Cuba alongside Iran, North Korea and Syria.

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) is also stating: “Passengers who have been in Cuba on or after 12 January 2021 are not allowed to enter with an Esta authorisation.”

This may be working to some travellers’ advantage. In theory, any transatlantic airline will check travellers’ passports.

Anyone who is seeking to enter the US on an Esta, but who also has a stamp showing a visit to Cuba since 2011, should be turned away and treated as a “no show”. (It is the traveller’s responsibility to comply with all red tape, however barmy it may be.)

But because airlines tend to follow Iata rules, they may be letting through passengers who have visited between 2011 and 11 January 2021.

For several weeks The Independent has asked the US authorities to clarify these conflicting statements, but so far without success.

Meanwhile many UK travellers say they have successfully visited America despite evidence of a trip to Cuba in their passports.

I’ve been to Cuba since 2011 but when I applied for an Esta the country wasn’t mentioned?

This feature of the Esta system is causing yet more confusion and consternation. Unfortunately the omission of a check that you have not visited Cuba is overruled by that State Department rule: “Any visit to an SST … renders the applicant ineligible for Esta.”

How do you account for the many British holidaymakers who have been to Cuba in the past 11 years being allowed in to the US with an Esta?

First, the US does not have a database of foreigners who have visited Cuba (except the tiny number who entered from American airports). Anyone who was in Cuba in 2011 will certainly have a new passport by now, and many other people will have renewed.

Without a Cuban stamp as proof, it is difficult for the US authorities to know that the traveller has been there. I am obliged to point out that failing to declare a visit would breach the rules.

Next, if there is a Cuban stamp in the passport, at a busy airport the US Customs & Border Protection official may not have time to go through every page to try to spot it.

Third, there is some anecdotal evidence that officers are either turning a blind eye or, when they notice the stamp, saying that the traveller will be admitted this time but must apply for a visa in future.

I am only changing planes in the US. Does the new rule apply to me?

Yes. Unlike the vast majority of the world’s nations, the US requires transit passengers to be legally admitted to the country – even if they are simply changing planes in a couple of hours. So people with connections to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America are required to have either an Esta or a US visa.

Is Cuba really a state sponsor of terrorism?

The classification applies to nations that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism”.

The State Department says: “For decades, the Cuban government has fed, housed, and provided medical care for murderers, bombmakers, and hijackers, while many Cubans go hungry, homeless, and without basic medicine.”

Yet compared with many other countries in the world, for example Russia, Cuba looks relatively benign.

What does the travel industry say?

It’s appalled that British travellers should be entangled by Washington DC’s loathing of the regime in Havana.

The chief executive of the Latin American Travel Association (Lata), Danny Callaghan, said: “Whilst this will have some small impact on tourism to the US, the far bigger impact will be for Cuba and its beleaguered tourism economy, struggling to recover even before Hurricane Ian swept across the island.

“Many Lata members sell Cuba as part of their portfolio, and I would urge travellers to still continue to travel to the island and just forget about going to the US, at least until they see sense and overturn this nonsensical Trump legacy.

“There are also plenty of alternatives to accessing Latin America without transiting through the US.”

Will the rule change any time soon?

I fully expected Joe Biden to quickly reverse a Donald Trump decision that made out of spite. But 21 months on from taking over in the White House, the anti-Cuba rhetoric continues.

Ned Price, a US State Department spokesperson, said in September: “Our policy has been predicated on the interests of the Cuban people, on the aspirations for greater freedom, greater democracy on the part of the Cuban people.”

He was asked directly: “Is the administration’s position that Cuba still meets the legal requirements to be a state sponsor of terror?”

Mr Price replied: “The fact pattern that led a previous administration to designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism is in the public record.”

In other words, no change is anticipated soon.

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