In recent weeks, travelers to the USA have increasingly reported that they have been denied entry to the USA with ESTA. This was always justified in connection with trips to Cuba within the last few years. What is the background of the entry ban and what should those affected consider in the future?
Several cases are currently causing a stir among travelers to the U.S. in which persons attempting to enter the U.S. with ESTA approval under the Visa Waiver Program are turned away at border control because they have a Cuba entry stamp in their passport or a (dual) citizenship or residence permit from Cuba. In addition, there are increasing reports of individuals who have subsequently had an already approved ESTA revoked - in some cases without notification from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which administers this program. Some of these travelers only found out at the airport during check-in that they no longer had an authorization and were therefore denied entry.
On the part of the U.S. authorities, Cuba is still not on the list of countries that are not ESTA travel eligible. Officially, only people who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan or Syria since March 01, 2011 are excluded from the visa waiver program. To date, the security query in the ESTA online application form continues to ask only for travel to these countries. There is no query about previous trips to Cuba.
Since a few days, however, one can find in the FAQ section of the official ESTA site the note on Cuba that travelers who have visited a "State Sponsor of Terrorism", regardless of the time period, are no longer authorized to enter the U.S. visa-free with ESTA, but must apply for a visa. Cuba was re-designated as a so-called "State Sponsor of Terrorism" in early 2021.
At the same time, other official U.S. authorities point out that not all travelers to Cuba are excluded from the Visa Waiver Program. Only those groups of people who stayed in Cuba on or after January 12, 2021 would be affected. This contradictory information continues to cause confusion. An official announcement from the U.S. Department of State or U.S. immigration authorities is still pending.
It is currently unknown how decisions will be made at border control, as not all travelers with ESTA authorization and Cuba stamps were generally rejected upon entry. If former travelers to Cuba want to be on the safe side, it is currently recommended to apply for a B visa, regardless of the period of travel to Cuba at that time.
Within the last few years, tourist travel from the U.S. to Cuba was prohibited, regardless of the travel route or even the nationality, as long as there were no special reasons for travel.
Since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, U.S.-Cuba relations have survived not only a nuclear crisis and a long U.S. economic embargo, but also ongoing political hostilities.
The issue of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism first arose as early as the 1980s, when then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan classified Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism because he accused the Castro government, with its national liberation movements, of supporting militant communist groups in African and Latin American countries.
It took more than 50 years for diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States to be strengthened and many restrictions renewed under President Barack Obama. In 2015, the U.S. State Department officially removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. For the first time since the 1960s, both countries opened their respective embassies and connecting passenger air travel resumed.
However, during his term (2016 - 2020), U.S. President Trump once again ensured a ban on travel to Cuba and charged with renewed allegations of sponsoring terrorism. On January 11, 2021, the Trump administration officially placed Cuba back on the SST list, which otherwise includes only three other countries: Iran, North Korea, and Syria.
Current U.S. President Joe Biden, who has adopted a similar political strategy on many issues as Obama did when he was in office, eased some of Trump's restrictions in the spring of 2022, including flight restrictions, a family reunification program, and improved visa processing.
To currently be on the safe side when entering the U.S. and avoid being turned away at the border, travelers who have a Cuba stamp in their passport, or have traveled to Cuba once before, should apply for a B visa. With a B visa you have not only gained a longer period of stay of a total of 180 days per entry, but can also use the visa on average up to 10 years.
Unfortunately, there are still sometimes long waiting times of several weeks for free interview appointments at the responsible U.S. consulates to apply for a B visa. I.e., former travelers to Cuba have to plan enough lead time for their visa application when planning to travel to the USA.
In addition, we recommend that anyone who has been to Cuba before and still decides to travel under the Visa Waiver Program check the validity of their ESTA authorization before traveling.
Updated on 31.10.2022