How to get in trouble traveling to Cuba

It appears that Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba was above board after all. That’s at least what Reuters is reporting, citing a source close to the couple.

The two music stars were in Cuba last week, where they toured Old Havana, posed for pictures with local schoolchildren and dined at the renowned restaurant La Guarida.  The trip also sparked the interest of two Republican congressman from Florida who questioned what kind of license – or special permission – allowed them visit to the island.

Traveling to Cuba is technically not illegal, but the U.S. does prohibit its citizens from spending money in Cuba without the proper license.

While it’s true that visiting Cuba has gotten a whole lot easier due to easing of restrictions for Americans,  travelers must take part in tours to Cuba that encourage “people to people” contact. There are exceptions for students, journalists, Cuban-Americans and others with legal reasons to travel there.

But without the proper permission, getting caught can result in 10 years in prison and $250,000 in individual fines.

While most people’s trips won’t garner the public scrutiny of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, here are some ways you might still catch some heat if you don’t follow the rules.

1. Don’t Get a License

You can't simply book a flight and a hotel and head to Cuba.  To get into the country legally, you need to travel with a Cuba travel organization that has an official license from the U.S. State Department.  There are about a dozen of these licensed organizations now.

2. Hang Out On The Beach

Tourist activities -- like visiting the beach or scuba diving -- are prohibited from itineraries. According to Treasury Department guidelines: “Each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”  This means your days will be spent going to museums, a hospital or a local Communist Party block meeting.

3. Purchase Tickets From a Local Travel Agent

You can find anything on the Internet, including contact details for a local agent who will be more than happy to sell you a ticket directly -- by cash.  Also, there are other third party agents that arrange travel to Cuba, usually through a third country. (By the way, the Cuban customs and immigration officials know not to stamp the passports of Americans entering the country.)  You can do the same if you want to book a hotel room or a car.

4. Ignore the U.S. government if it comes a calling

Say you’re busted by U.S. customs officials when bringing something back to the U.S. that you bought in Cuba.  If you get a questionnaire from Treasury Department’s office, which oversees financial dealings with Cuba asking for details –ignore it.  That’s what happed to tourist Zachary Sanders.  After a protracted to and from in which Sanders sued the U.S. government, he finally agreed to settle the case and pay a fine of $6500.