Cuba has been one of the least connected countries of the world. A trip to this Caribbean island is still like walking down memory lane to a place of 30 years ago. The US embargo hindered any development of the mobile phone system and internet access, but the easing of the restrictions since 2016 brings new opportunities and rapid change is on its way.
At the end of 2018 mobile internet was finally opened to Cubans and foreigners can now buy SIM cards under certain conditions. That's why this country is from now on greylisted according to our rules as there are many strings attached. For going to Cuba we also list the alternatives of roaming and WiFi hotspots. Better rely on multiple ways to stay connected, when you go to Cuba, as long as you need a reliable internet access.
Mobile telephony in Cuba
All telephone services in Cuba are provided through ETECSA (for Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A.) which is state-owned. It's the only player for landlines, mobile telephony and internet access on the island. In every town on the island you can find an office of ETECSA for basic services.
Mobile telephone service is delivered through two different companies under the roof of ETECSA:
C-com, also called Celulares del Caribe is not accessible, so this article focuses on Cubacel.
Mobile or cellular telephone service in Cuba is expensive and must be paid in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) by locals too, which severely limits subscribership.
Internet in Cuba
The internet in Cuba is characterized by a low number of connections, limited bandwidth, some censorship and high cost. Cuba has the lowest ratio of computers per inhabitant in Latin America and the lowest internet access ratio of all the Western hemisphere. So the main obstacle for the local population is to go online as Cuba’s domestic telecommunications infrastructure is limited in scope and only appropriate for the early days of the internet.
The island depended on a few satellite links without significant bandwidth. In 2011 the new fibre-optic cable link to Venezuela was started, but delayed for years. Since 2015 it seems to be operational and gives more speed to the few users so far. But times are changing: in 2016 ETECSA began a pilot program for broadband internet to be rolled out in a few Cuban homes in Havana. In 2017 very high rates for home internet were announced and a pilot trial started. In 2018 first trials for mobile internet on local SIM cards started, before it was finally launched at the end of the year. Cuba has been one of the last countries in the world that opened mobile internet to its citizens in 2018.
Surprisingly, there is not much censorship around. Most websites of international media organizations, messengers and social media are freely accessible. Only a few US-based websites of groups fighting the Cuban governement are blacked out. The major way of "filtering" the internet is still through the lack of access for local people, its high cost and slow speeds.
Cubacel (by ETECSA)
Many consider Cubacel the only mobile provider in Cuba as C-com stays invisible. Cubacel started with a TDMA-network on 800 MHz which was decommissioned in 2009.
It's GSM-based network on 900 MHz nationwide for 2G with additional spectrum on 850 MHz in La Habana (= Havana), Varadero, Ciego de Ávila, Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and Holguín (at the airport and Guardalavaca) (see coverage map).
In 2017 Cuba’s state-owned telecoms operator ETECSA has announced that its customers are from now on able to send text messages to any mobile phone in the US and anywhere else. The cost is CUC 0.60 (US$ 0.60), with ETECSA stating that the charge is "similar to other international destinations".
In 2018 about 789 3G stations on 900 and 2100 MHz covered about 68% of the population and in 2019 this has grown to 85% of the population. The company intends to continue focusing on capacity expansion with a view to reducing prices and adding more users, although accessing mobile devices is a problem due to the ongoing US embargo.
In 2018 ETECSA also started to deploy 4G/LTE on 1800 MHz (B3). The operator has begun trials of 4G technology in northern Havana and in tourist hubs like Varadero, Cardenas, Mariel and Bauta. This trial 4G service is currently only available to some roaming customers and selected high-usage customers who consume over 1.5 GB of data a month, have compatible handsets and spend ‘significant amounts of time’ in coverage areas. ETECSA is aiming to bring 4G mobile services to all of the country’s 15 provincial capitals by the end of 2019.
In 2019 ETECSA has also unveiled new 4G/LTE mobile packages for prepaid customers, at the same time revealing that 3 million of its wireless lines were accessing mobile data services, following the commercial launch of 3G in December last year. The operator’s LTE network, meanwhile, was activated in the first half of 2019, but was initially restricted to selected high-usage customers. This service was opened up to prepaid users in October in the provinces of Havana, Matanzas, Mayabeque, Artemisa, Camaguey, Ciego de Avila, Holguin, Granma, Las Tunas, Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba.
ETECSA has installed a total of 3,268 mobile base stations across the island, of which 1,357 are 2G, 1,438 3G and 473 are 4G base stations. The LTE total is expected to reach 500 by year-end, located in all provinces except Cienfuegos, which will be upgraded to enable 4G access next year.
Be aware that ETECSA through Cubacel is logging all IMEI numbers of the devices as soon as their SIM card is put in the phone. Anyone inserting a SIM card into a phone that appears on their blacklist of invalid IMEI codes will have their line blocked. ETECSA said it was forced to take action in view of "the increase in reports associated with criminal acts including theft and/or loss of mobile phones." Users with a blocked SIM card can still have it unblocked, if they clarify the cause at an ETECSA office within 5 days.
These rules are frequently changing. From 2018 you will now be once again allowed to temporarily purchase a local SIM card as a visitor or tourist to the island. You will find ETECSA offices already at terminals 2 and 3 of Havana's international airport.
According to the new ETECSA rules tourists or visitors to Cuba who stay for at least 3 days and up to a year can now buy or rather rent a Contrato Temporal in all ETECSA offices. The daily fee for the SIM is CUC 3 and needs to be prepaid according to your expected use period, but you can later extend in time. You also need to make a minimum recharge of CUC 10 too. For latest details check Contrato Temporal on this ETECSA site.
Voice call rates and SMS
Voice calls and SMS services, as well as IDD calls and texts are working incoming and outgoing. Cubacel's SIM cards come with prepaid minutes in amounts of 10, 20 or 40 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC = US$) plus a daily rental fee for the SIM card of CUC 3. You are allowed to bring your own device as long as it works on 900 MHz GSM. The maximum rental is for 45 days.
Rates are CUC 0.35 (@ daytime) and CUC 0.10 (@ nighttime) per minute for calls within Cuba and CUC 1-1.20 per minute for calls abroad. Daytime is 7am-11pm, nightime is 11pm-7am. Outgoing text messages cost CUC 0.09 to send within Cuba and CUC 0.60 to send abroad. Incoming calls and SMS are free.
Data feature packages
In 2018 ETECSA finally launched mobile internet services via the island's 3G network on 900 and 2100 MHz for its own citizens. So you can now expect to have at least basic internet on a Cubacel SIM card.
Default rate for data without a package is CUC 0.10 per MB and CUC 0.02 for Cuban sites. These monthly packages are offered for the start:
- 400 MB: CUC 5
- 600 MB: CUC 7
- 1 GB: CUC 10
- 2.5 GB: CUC 20
- 4 GB: CUC 30
To all packages 300 MB are added only for Cuban websites. You can activate these packages by *133*1#. Be aware that the prices in Cuba are too high for many users as the average national income of $30 translates into just 4 GB.
In 2019 after the opening of their 4G/LTE network for prepaid users, these new plans for 4G/LTE were introduced:
- 6.5 GB: CUC 35
- 10 GB: CUC 45
Activation is through *133 and these monthly plans are primarily for 4G/LTE, that's why 2G/3G use is capped at 3.5 GB.
This means that you will be able to make voice calls for a lower price. The most popular messenger in Cuba is IMO and consumes just 5 MB per minute for its VoIP functionality.
- APN: nauta
- Website of ETECSA in Spanish: http://www.etecsa.cu
Renting a cellphone in Cuba
You may also rent a Cubacel phone when you arrive in Cuba and give it back when leaving. The most likely places are ETECSA/Cubacel offices in terminals #2 and #3 at José Martí International Airport in Havana.
They charge a one-time refundable deposit of CUC 100, plus a daily fee of CUC 10 for the device. Additionally, you should expect to pay all of the applicable charges.
Purchasing a SIM card through a local
If you plan to stay for more than 10 days or are a recurring visitor, you can ask a local to buy a SIM card for you and have it registered on his name.
Purchasing a prepaid Cubacel SIM Contrato Permanente costs CUC 30 and comes with CUC 10 starter credit. The same call and text rates apply as for the rental option. The requirements for the Cuban national to comply are written here.
There are many ways to top-up Cubacel SIM cards. Recharge vouchers of CUC 5, 10 or 20 are sold in the country or go to an ETECSA office. If you want to use your credit card or do it from abroad, you can buy Cubacel recharge cards in the US, Canada or Spain or reload through Ding or Cubacalls for a surcharge or you can use eTopUpOnline free of charge
Effective in 2014 Cubacel SIM cards and the loaded credit stay valid for 330 days past each top-up. Then there is an additional grace period of 1 month, when the SIM stays open for incoming services only, before the subscription will be terminated.
Irish mobile payments company Ezetop/Ding who is more renowed for high premiums on recharges has announced an agreement with Cuba's state-owned telecommunications operator Etecsa in 2018 to enable customers all over the world to go online and purchase Cubacel SIMs and handsets to be picked up locally by residents and tourists alike in Cuba. Cubans who work away from their home country can now go online and buy not only phone top-ups but also Cubacel SIMs and handsets for family and friends back home.
The offer is available via the recargasACuba website, where customers can top up Cubacel, Nauta and Etecsa products as well as purchase Cubacel SIMs and mobile phones.
A Cubacell SIM is for € 37.78 including CUC 10 credit pre-loaded. Foreign purchasers simply need to choose an Etecsa office and specify some passport data. In Cuba they need to go to this office, show their passport and pick up the SIM and/or handset.
In February 2020 their Cubacel Tur SIM card was launched for tourist in Cuba. It's available for purchase directly through their site. The SIM costs € 23.81 (US$ 25) which comes loaded with 2.5 GB of data, 20 minutes of calls and 20 SMS for national and international destinations. You need to give passport information online and select an Etecsa office where you will pick it up within 30 days after order.
The tourist SIM is valid only for a maximum of 30 days and can't be extended in time. You can add this extra volume online:
- 600 MB: € 9.61 ($7)
- 1 GB: € 12.36 ($10)
- 2.5 GB: € 21.52 ($20)
- 4 GB: € 30.67 ($30)
Arriving at the international airport you can pick up the service in a commercial branch of Etecsa or in Terminal 3 of the José Martí Airport or in the Bureau of Cubatur that is airside, before checking with immigration. For more details check this manual.
- APN: nauta.
- website: https://www.recargasacuba.com/linea-cubacel-sim-y-telefono
- Tourist SIM: https://www.recargasacuba.com/en/tourist-sim-card-cuba
Roaming with your home provider
Alternatively, you may choose to roam with your home provider for data. But you must be willing to pay a hefty price. Cuba is frequently listed as one of the most expensive roaming countries worldwide, just below cruise ships and satellite telephony.
Cubacel lists these roaming partners abroad (check here), but beware that not all operators include data. So you should better check with your home provider before travel. Those who include data have the benefit of an exclusive use of the data network and 3G in some tourist places like Havana and Varadero. Speed is reported to be quite reasonable, if you happen to catch a 3G cell.
All major US carriers have sealed roaming agreements with Cubacel after the boycott has been lifted. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint now all sell data at around US$2 per MB without any packages offered. T-Mobile hasn't included Cuba in their 140+ countries list of free roaming at low speeds.
All Canadian providers have offered roaming services for a long time as they were not affected by the US embargo. Rogers charges CA$1.50 per MB, Telus CA$10 per MB and Bell sells a 30 MB pass at CA$75. Note, that most Canadian roaming packages are not valid in Cuba.
From Latin America and the Caribbean Movistar and Claro roam at equally high prices while some providers from Europe and the rest of the world offer data roaming in Cuba too. Roaming rates are extremely high and variable like Vodafone in Germany at €23.60 per MB, but £5 for 25 MB data a day, with £3 a MB thereafter with Vodafone UK. So check with your home provider first and look for available offers, when you decide to go for this option.
WiFi hotspots (Nauta)
In 2015 ETECSA started to install WiFi hotspots throughout the country, where users can link to the internet by a WiFi connection.
In a first step 35 spots were created, but in 2016 already 317 WiFi access points have been installed in many different places covering all provinces. There is even one at the international airport of Havana.
1,157 public internet access places are present in 2016 and about 193 'Salas de Navegación' were created where they rent out computers with an internet connection mostly in an ETECSA office (list of places) like in webcafes. However, these places are very crowded as demand is quite high.
This is still a drop in the bucket for a country with over 11 miilion inhabitants. Access can be slow and dropped connections are common. The price is too high for most Cubans and the lines to buy time are long. Furthermore the outdoor facilities are crowded, lack privacy, exposed to rain and heat and attract criminals.
In July 2015 after lot of critisism ETECSA cut the prices by 56% and again in 2016 by 25%. A one hour access is now for CUC 1.50. Temporary residents like exchange students can apply for a permanent Nauta account that can be loaded like a prepaid account. Visitors are restricted to buy Nauta vouchers for access.
At and around these spots Nauta vouchers are sold officially in three different denominations. In 2017 the prices were again lowered:
- 30 minutes: CUC 0.50
- 1 hour: CUC 1.00
- 5 hours: CUC 5.00
As all vouchers have the same base price of CUC 1 per hour, mostly the hourly voucher is available at all. You are only allowed to buy 3 vouchers at a time. The credit is valid for 30 days after the first connection.
There are sometimes long lines in front of the counters. That's why around many spots a 'secondary market' has been established. You will be offered the same cards for a surcharge at e.g. CUC 2-3. This is illegal, but common practice to skip the long lines. Just check, that your password hasn't been scratched off before. Furthermore, be aware that thefts and robberies of cellphones and laptops have occured at these places. That's something which hasn't been seen before in Cuba.
Connecting to a Cuban Hotspot
To connect to a Cuban hotspot you need to go to one of their hotspot areas which you can easily find by users hanging around or checking the list and looking at a map.
You'll need to buy a Nauta card and bring your own device. Then connect to WIFI_ETECSA ignoring an aged security certificate. You will be directed to their landing page. The Nauta card has a log on code and password which you scatch off and enter.
You need to log off manually or will lose the rest of your credit otherwise. To log off type 188.8.131.52 into the search bar. Here you request to log off and click ‘cerrar sesión’. If you have not used your full hour then the remaining credit will be available for you to use later. When service breaks down and you will not be able to log off, you can forget the rest of your credit.
To get the most out of the internet in Cuba, prepare your e-mails in ‘Draft’ format and they’ll be ready to go when you connect to the Cuban internet. If you’re an avid social media user, prepare your tweets in advance and your Instagram pictures. Be prepared to know which websites you’ll be able to visit and have a plan of attack as soon as you connect to the internet because the time is ticking.
Issues with Cuban Hotspots
Accessibility is not only restricted to where you log on, but the strenght of the WiFi is not always great. It’s sometimes slow and can stop working for days in places. Many factors affect your connection and speed: distance to the hotspot router, numbers of users on it, even bad weather.
You need to check your email through the web to be able to send and receive mails, if you use Outlook Express or the Email icon, you will be able to receive mails but not to send, as SMTP server for clients are not supported.
You can't use Facetime, Snapchat or Skype in Cuba. WhatsApp works, even for VoIP, but locals mostly use the app/software IMO for VoIP calls abroad and given enough speed even for video chats.
Some users made a surprising discovery: Their high-end Android devices simply refused to connect to the ETECSA hotspot. This only happened to certain Samsung S3, S4 and S5 Edge (but not mini) and Galaxy Note 4 models. The reason is ridiculous and confirmed now: These devices have an in-built Broadcom 802.11ac chipset for '5G WiFI'. As a former US-company (now sold to Singapore) it was required to obey the US embargo. So every time the device understands that it's located in Cuba, the chip stops working. It's likely that other Android high-end devices like the HTC one or LG Nexus 5 and some routers are affected too, but you are clear with any Android without it or any iOS or Windows Phone.
Other WiFi hotspots
There are 615 3rd party locations as in many international hotels in Havana, Varadero and other resorts that either sell Nauta cards (sometimes for a surcharge and some consumption, if you are not staying there) or own internet passes for their own WiFi in the hotel lobby. Prices range around CUC 2-10 per hour and access policy varies. It’s still very rare to find internet access in your hotel room aside from the hotel lobby. On the other side internet speeds in some hotel lobbys are reported to be astonishingly high.