With amateur artists selling their work in tiny galleries and streetside displays, musicians peddling CDs and street vendors selling knick-knacks and handicrafts throughout Habana Vieja, it’s easy to spend money in Cuba. But it’s made somewhat complicated by a dual-currency system that keeps visitors on their toes. The original legal tender is the Cuban peso (or CUP), which is also called the “national peso” or moneda nacional. The convertible Cuban peso (or CUC) is simultaneously in circulation and, in theory, is the currency used exclusively for commerce with visitors to the country, as well as for many non-essential goods and services. Neither currency is available outside of Cuba, nor are they allowed to fluctuate with the world markets. One CUC (which is pegged to the US dollar) equals 26.5 CUPs, so it pays to be sure you’re negotiating with a merchant for a price in the same currency before reaching into your wallet. And even then, be sure to check your coins carefully—CUPs and CUCs look all-too-similar to the unaccustomed eye.
Bring cash (US dollars or other currency exchangeable in Cuba, such as euros, Canadian dollars, etc.). Currently, credit or debit cards issued by US banks are not accepted in Cuba, so everything you purchase in Cuba needs to be paid for in cash. However, the financial situation between the US and Cuba is changing rapidly, so check with your card company or financial institution directly. Note that it is illegal to take CUCs out of Cuba. Also, don’t check your US online banking or investment accounts from Cuba as this can raise a red flag with your bank or investment institution and put a freeze on your accounts.
So what does the dual currency mean for the average Cuban? Cubans receive the majority of their government wages in CUPs and can use this money to pay for bus fares, some services and staples not covered by their government ration card. But CUCs pay for the rest: supermarkets, hotels, most restaurants, cell phone services, home appliances, school supplies and anything not subsidized by the government. As a result, it comes as no surprise that jobs in the tourism industry, where tipping in CUCs is common (and thus waiters and taxi drivers can potentially earn many times more than government-employed doctors), are in high demand.