For Europeans a Cuban visa will last 30 days with one extension possible while being in the country. My trip was planned for 6 weeks and remembering how easy it was to get visa extensions in Asia I did not really research it much. For "not much" please read "not at all". What was supposed to be a simple morning excursion soon tuned into a two day nightmare so if you fancy a similar experience just follow these tips to be in for a right treat. If however you are looking for a more relaxed holiday not ending in getting deported I’d advise you to do exactly the opposite!
1. Do trust the Lonely Planet
2. Do not learn any Spanish
3. Do not get stamps and a copy of your medical insurance in advance
4. Have a lie-in
5. Wait politely in line till it’s your turn
My Cuban adventured has been characterized by lazy days at the beach and even lazier nights full of rum and dive talk. This kinda influenced the way I went about this extension. On the last day possible I turned up mid-afternoon at the address listed in the Lonely Planet in Havana Nuovo Vedado – just to be told that I’m completely wrong here. Great, not that I walked for over an hour in the oppressing heat to get there. So instead of saving some money I had to splash out on getting a taxi to yet another immigration office so far away from the city center that it does not really count as Havana proper anymore. Cheers Lonely Planet! Anyway, my casa owner later informed me that he could have told me that the info in the guidebook was wrong. So here comes handy tip No.1: Ask your casa owner regardless of what your plans in Cuba are, they will always know better than any guidebook you can buy.
In all Asian countries I went to the visa application forms had been in English. Naively assuming Cuba would be the same; however, I was in for a nice surprise. I actually speak some Spanish but clearly not enough to cope with a long form asking intrusive questions about my private life (that’s what I imagine they were asking anyway) after running around for hours to get there. If you really don’t speak any Spanish bring a dictionary and don’t count on meeting anyone at the office speaking English. Luckily I did meet a Mexican girl that went through the form with me, without her I would have been lost.
Having filled in the form and my 25CUC in hand I was ready to get this stamp in my passport – just to be told that I was missing about a dozen important documents. In Spanish of course and not just any old Spanish but Cuban Spanish which has nothing to do with what I learned at school. Trust me, it was a very long half hour until I got everything the immigration officer was on about. Temptation to start crying was certainly there or at least to get a very large bottle of rum and down it!
What you need for a visa extension is 25CUC in stamps that you can get from the bank, a copy of your valid travel medical certificate (with dates that you are covered for) and a receipt from your casa that you are staying there. The latter I only found out after a one hour wait at the bank, a trip to Hotel Cuba Libre to print off my medical insurance and another 3 hour queue at yet another Havana immigration office.
Queuing will become your best friend while in Cuba, people just love to queue for literally everything and anything. The way it works is that you arrive at the end of the queue, shout as loud as you can "Que es ultimo" – which will probably be ignored – and wait in line till it is your turn.
But what line I ask you? At the Havana integration office there was a huge number of people but nothing, really nothing, that would resemble a line. Staff randomly appears shouting random things in a random language (Spanish speakers will have a clear advantage here) and collect passports on an equally basis. Your best bet is to wait at the entrance and be annoying for long enough that someone is going to take your passport off you. Then just sit and wait for the next 100 hours until you are called in the office. At that point I was getting slightly grumpy (granted, it was all my fault but anyway) when the office woman told me that I was missing the casa receipt, she therefore could not give me an extension and to top it all off they were closing for the day. Which meant that as of 12 o’clock that night I was without a valid visa – believe me, not a petty thought when you are very far away from your home embassy.
The lady then told me that she’d keep my passport there overnight and all I had to do was turn up the next morning with the receipt. And with a lovely smile she added that I’d either get my extension then or they would deport me. Good night to you too! And what a night it was, filled with random cocktails in our casa to celebrate my potentially last night in Cuba.
The next morning I was so prepared, receipt in hand I was at the immigration office (btw, the closest to the city center is Calle 17 y K) just after sunrise just to find myself at the end of another very, very long queue. This time it actually was a sort of orderly queue which unfortunately disintegrated as soon as the office doors opened. Right at the start a woman asked for all foreigners’ passports (pasaporte extranjero) and collected them.
Hours went by, empires rose and fell and entire Hollywood trilogies were filmed before I saw that women again. But then finally after literally 12 hours of queuing across 2 days I had the all-important stamp in my passport. And frankly, it wasn’t that bad. I’ve met some super interesting people all in the same situation at me and very much improved my Spanish.
To make the whole experience a bit more fun bring a friend or at least a book along. There is nothing as boring as starring at a dirty wall in 35degree heat waiting for the immigration staff to finish their lunch. Supplies are always good and a snack and some cold water will go a long way increasing your survival chances and maybe even make new friends. The most important thing is to keep smiling and do your best to see it as a cultural experience. I did certainly learn more about the Cuban way of life and met some interesting people along the way. Most of the problems I had can be easily avoided and no sane person has to jump through all these hoops to enjoy another month in Cuba. But hey, at least I got another great travel story to tell – and my mates felt sorry for me and bought me a big bottle of rum to celebrate me not getting deported.