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An Expat's Guide to Living in Havana, Cuba

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Life in Havana, Cuba is not like living anywhere else on the planet and if you are thinking about moving here as a foreigner, chances are you will either love it or hate it. There kinda is no in-between when it comes to Havana and Cuba!

This incredibly beautiful island nation is home to the salsa casino dance, the merengue, the son music sound, the Cuba Libre, sugar and honey, and the coveted Cuban cigar. 

Cubans are these warm people whose culture has roots in Europe, Africa, Latin America, the United States, and the former Soviet Union over the last centuries, not just the infamous legacy of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Anything “Cuban” is really an eclectic and unique result of this mix. 

Living in Cuba as an expat will be very different from visiting Cuba on holiday, and as I have lived in Old Havana for two years, I want to make sure you know what you are getting yourself into if you move to Havana. 

It is going to be complicated but if you embrace the weirdness and the complication, you might love it anyway - it certainly will not be mundane!

Things You Need to Know About Life in Havana

Playas del Este in Havana

The capital of Cuba is the largest city on the island (which is also the largest island in the Caribbean) and is home to around two million people. It is nestled on the island's northern coast, just under 100 miles southeast of Key West in Florida. 

Havana is an extraordinary city where people live in six different decades at the same time amidst the heritage of three different continents and five centuries' worth of influence that you will walk through and live in every day. 

There is elegant colonial architecture, fortresses, bicycle taxis, iPhones, and classic American cars. Everywhere, you will see signs of the Spanish colonialists and the African Santeria religion brought here with African slaves, which today is a normal part of everyday life for most Cuban nationals.  

It is also a place with incredible natural beauty nearby, UNESCO World Heritage sites, amazing restaurants, vibrant, charming bars, live music, and street art, where any excuse for a happy moment in a day is welcome. 

You can easily go on day trips to nearby destinations like resort haven Varadero, Vinales with Cuban cigars, and colonial Trinidad along the southern coast. 

The history and current state still make Havana a fascinating and complicated place to live in. Although the country has opened up to the outside world and people have access to passports, Facebook, and YouTube, the last 6 decades still run the country. 

The twist that is unique to Cuba is that it was home to a revolution in 1958 that resulted in Cuba becoming the only socialist one-party state in the whole region. 

Today, the revolution is still omnipresent, there is still just one political party, and bureaucracy is tedious and widespread in the socialist state.  

Hence, it is an island in a double sense, having been a closed bastion of fierce principles in a political standoff with the US since the revolution, which has impacted how Cuba and its people and culture have developed. In recent years, the country has opened up a lot, but due to relations with the US and the pandemic, the situation in Cuba is still complicated. 

This is why you will probably either love or hate the ambiance and way of life in Cuba you need to adapt to if you want to move to and thrive in Havana! 

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The 6 Most Important Neighborhoods in Havana

The view of Central Havana

Old Havana

The most famous and popular area of Havana is Old Havana, or La Habana Vieja in Spanish. If you live here, once you step outside your house, you are in the middle of history. Many colonial sites are here, fortresses, plazas, and art, and you live in the middle of all the hustle and bustle.

I lived here for two years in a classic colonial apartment,and what you need to know about living here is that Old Havana is a noisy, vibrant area where there are people, dogs, cars, and trucks everywhere, and you can not really shut the city out of your wooden framed windows. 

However, if you want to make sure you have water and electricity all the time, Old Havana is where you want to live. Other neighborhoods tend to lose that irregularly in Havana. 

Central Havana

Central Havana is similar to Old Havana; it has the same colonial-style buildings, but the houses, facades, and details are a lot more run down and the streets feel narrower. There are fewer tourists in Central Havana, less noise, and more small shops. Prices are lower (black market prices) as there are fewer foreigners here. 

El Vedado

El Vedado, or the Vedado, is the more modern part of the city where the architecture is a mix of colonial heritage, the US influence in the first half of the 20th century, and the last part after the Cuban revolution with Russian influence. Here, you will find the University of Havana, various embassies, wider streets, bigger and better houses, parks, restaurants, and amusement areas.   

Miramar

Then you have Miramar, the uppest uptown area of Havana, where the Cuban elite, foreigners, diplomats, and business people live. Here, you can still find incredible mansions and partly gated communities where the standard of living is a lot better than in mainstream Cuba. 

Eastern Havana

If you want to “go native”, you can also choose to live in Habana del Este, Eastern Havana. There will be very few foreigners here, prices will be lower, and facilities will be fewer and further apart. 

Guanabo

If you dont mind living a bit more basic and authentically Cuban, you might enjoy living in a place like Guanabo, 25 minutes outside Havana center. From Guanabo, you are also within walking distance of the beautiful white beaches if that is important to you! 

The Rollercoaster Life in Havana

Photo of Havana by depositphotos.com

Life in Havana, Cuba, is a rollercoaster life where everything is unpredictable and a bit challenging. However, daily life also has a lighter side to it, as the Western requirement to be anywhere on time is basically nonexistent in Cuba. 

Buses will not arrive on a regular schedule, rain showers shut everything down for a while, and as everyone knows, “life happens.” No one arrives on time anywhere and no one is upset by that either. So, the daily grind kind of stress does not really apply here in the same way. 

Se complicó, everyone will say, “It complicated itself,” and there's nothing to do about that! 

People will come to visit you for a cafecito any time in your home and stay to chat about this and that and the latest rumors. They will probably not call ahead but welcoming visitors is very important in Cuba, so take the time and enjoy the company!

You can expect that finding and buying food will be a chore that will take some time and energy. There are no supermarkets as you know them and in the stores that exist, you never know what they have and what is out of stock when you get in. This really puts you in a state of mind where you rejoice over the small things!

Buy fresh fruit and vegetables in the streets from carts or markets, and the prices will depend on where in the season we are! 

The private sector in Cuba is expanding, and there are more and more privately owned restaurants, paladares, in Havana. If you want to, you can go out to eat and pay anything from $3-4 for a chicken takeaway meal to a high-end gourmet dining experience! 

Can I Get a Cuban Visa and Move to Cuba?

Plaza de la Revolución in Havana

Well, yes, and no. 

Formally, it is very difficult to move to Cuba but it is very easy to stay in Cuba almost indefinitely. 

The reason for this is that a tourist visa (also called a tourist card) for Cuba is now valid for 90 days after a new law that was passed in 2021, and it can be extended for another 90 days. This allows you to stay in Cuba for 180 days or six months before you need to leave the island.

Also, you do not need to stay out of the country for any period of time. You can just spend a weekend somewhere else, buy a new tourist visa, and return to stay for up to another 180 days in Cuba. 

I have done this more than a dozen times, and it is not difficult, but it will take you a day to get your tourist visa extended. Then you can take a weekend in Miami or Mexico once every six months, for example! 

Apart from the tourist visa for Cuba that you buy, you can also apply for other visas to Cuba, including a student visa, work visa, and journalist visa, to mention a few. It is possible to become a citizen of Cuba and get residency, but it is not easy. The easiest way would be to marry a Cuban national but it still includes a lot of paperwork, administration, and bureaucracy. 

So the bottom line is that you can stay in Cuba for as long as you like on a tourist visa as long as you jump the border every six months. 

Americans Living in Cuba

Americans can live in Cuba in exactly the same conditions as other nationalities living there, meaning you can stay on a tourist visa for up to 90 days that can be extended once before you need to leave the island. 

Even though US citizens can not travel to Cuba as normal tourists, there are 12 pre-approved reasons for Cuba travel for Americans. The most common reason for Cuba travel is “to help the Cuban people.” You will still travel with a tourist visa but you need to buy the pink version. 

The one factor that complicates a US citizen's long-term stay in Cuba is that US credit cards are not accepted in Cuba by the Cuban government due to the ongoing sanctions and the US embargo. So, Americans wanting to stay in Cuba for longer periods of time would probably make their lives easier if they got an international credit card that they could use when in Cuba. 

Cost of Living in Havana

A typical Cuban cafe

The cost of living in Havana, Cuba is still okay from a North American or European perspective, even though prices have gone through the roof in Cuba after the pandemic.

Apartment Costs

You can rent an apartment through Airbnb or other accommodation apps starting at around $400/month and up (December 2023). The prices are adjusted to the economy of foreigners, not the economy of Cubans (a monthly governmental average salary in Cuba is still around $30). 

There is also a website in Cuba called Revolico, where rentals to foreigners are regulated and you may find accommodation here. 

Shopping Costs

Shopping for necessities in the MLC stores (Moneda Libremente Convertible) is possible, where you can pay with your international credit card (not US cards), and prices are not high. On the black market on the streets, en las calles, however, prices are soaring. 

Inflation of the Cuban pesos has come to a point of between 500 and 1000 % since 2019, while salaries are not dramatically different, so the economy for ordinary Cubans in Cuba is difficult. 

As the Cuban peso is a closed national currency, its value relative to the dollar is determined by a strange mix of governmental regulations and black market capitalist principles that are constantly tracked on this page

As a foreigner living in Cuba, the minimum monthly cost for private accommodation rented by a Cuban family, food, transport, phone, and wifi, will probably amount to around $1000 and up. 

What You Can Experience Living in Cuba

Tropicana Cabaret in Havana

If you choose to live in Cuba, you will have a completely unique experience. In Havana, you will live in and walk the colonial historic streets amidst the beauty and the rubble, the music and the noise. 

You will get to know the distinct Cuban culture that is one-of-a-kind, you will redefine your view on time and plans and you will learn to improvise, adapt, and overcome the most unexpected issues. 

In Cuba, you will get to dance, swim on beautiful beaches on the Caribbean Sea, hike stunning mountains, explore UNESCO World Heritage Site areas, and visit waterfalls and national parks on land and in the water. 

It will definitely be easy to chat with people you meet. In Havana, you don't really have to spend any time alone unless you insist on doing so!

Working in Cuba

Finding work in Cuba as a foreigner is difficult, both because Cubans are prioritized and also because you, as a foreigner, will not be able to live on a Cuban salary without access to food stamps from the government that Cubans have. 

So, working here, you can either get a job with a foreign company, predominantly the tourist industry. Or you can work as a digital nomad, which is possible, although not without challenges due to the wifi situation. 

Making Cuban friends in Havana

It is really easy to chat with people in Havana, as Cubans are generally outgoing and sociable. 

However, on a deeper level, there is one factor that will influence the creation of real friendships when you are staying for a while. That is, most Cuban citizens have never had the opportunity to leave Cuba and, weirdly, will see you as a “foreigner” first and a “person“ second.

This perspective makes creating deep friendships initially a bit different than most other places. It is not impossible, but it takes a bit more time and effort! You can also make friends with other foreigners living in or staying in Cuba for periods of time. 

Real friendships are easiest to make if you join an activity or work, like dance courses, trips, a language course, or joining a charity organization (while getting to know someone at a bar might be more superficial). 

The Super Friendly Climate in Cuba

One of the best things about living in Cuba is the tropical climate, which is super comfortable all year round. It is a bit cooler in the dry season in winter and spring, and then it gets hot and humid come summer. 

In the wet season that runs from around May through October, you must expect afternoon showers, and the peak hurricane season in the Caribbean is from August through to October as well. After two years in Havana, though, I have not seen a hurricane yet! 

Still, most of the year, you can leave your house in a summer dress and flip-flops. 

Challenges with Living in Cuba

Photo of Old Havana by depositphotos.com

Over time, it can feel complicated to live in Cuba today, even for foreigners with a solid economy. 

The Varying Quality of Life

The standard of living can be whatever you can afford; there are mansions and hotels with incredible luxury available, and you can have “people” fixing everything for you. And there are the opposite, houses that are absolutely basic and you fix everything yourself. 

Healthcare in Cuba

There is basic free education and free healthcare that is considered good in Cuba. When I got COVID-19 in Havana, I was picked up at home and sent to an isolation facility, all very well organized. Yet medical care also suffers from a lack of equipment and medicine, and pharmacies are practically empty. 

Electricity, Water, & Internet Shortages

Finding accommodation in Havana is easy, and most apartments that are rented to foreigners have a good standard, but you must expect that things like electricity and water sometimes disappear.

Internet access in Cuba is becoming more and more common, but it is still not readily available everywhere. You still need to buy and log on with a scratch card from monopoly provider Etecsa, which lasts one or five hours respectively. 

Public Transportation

There is a public transport system in Havana, but it works without much of a schedule. You need to show up at your stop and wait for the next departure that goes to where you need to go, and there will be queues, which is why being in a rush (or stressing) is completely pointless. 

That can be a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it! And as a foreigner, you will get a well above-average level of attention in the public sphere and on the street, so prepare for that, too. 

Wrap-Up Life in Cuba 

So, that was a lot! 

I really do want you to visit Cuba, but I also need to make sure you know that living in Havana, Cuba is not like visiting. In order to live and thrive here over time, you need to be mentally prepared for what living in Havana is like and it probably is a good idea that the prospect appeals to you after reading all this.

If you can deal with and don't mind the weird, difficult stuff, you will learn and gain a lot from living in Havana on so many levels. You will not just get to know the Cuban culture but also grow as a person from the quite rare experience of living in this kind of state. 

And you will be helping the Cuban people, just as stated, as anyone just traveling here at the moment is doing exactly that! 

Hero photo by depositphotos.com. All photos courtesy of Hege Jacobsen unless otherwise noted.

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