Cuba has two different currencies. First one the Cuban National Peso or CUP. This is a low-power currency, that locals are paid in. It’s also called the moneda national so when you see prices ending with MN, you know you should pay with CUP.
The CUC, or Cuban Convertible Peso, is a more powerful currency roughly equivalent to 1 US Dollar. Tourists usually are only allowed to buy CUC’s from the exchange offices – Cadeca or Cambio. To change money you need to have your passport with you. Be aware that changing US Dollars incurs a 10% fee so you should bring Euros or Canadian Dollars with you.
Also be aware of something that happened to me and make sure you count the money the exchange office clerk gives you back. I went back and fourth with her for trying to scam me for 3 CUCs. I counted the money several times, as well as she has, and while my count was down 3 CUCs her was spot on until I got a calculator and we started counting together. I know she does that for a living so they don’t make mistakes. She just tried to scam me. Always count your money.
The usual going rate is 25 CUP = 1 CUC = 1 US Dollar = 1.18 Euros. So for 100 Euros you’ll get about 118 CUC depending on where you change it. These change all the time obviously, but not by much. If you want to change money at the official state-run exchange office be aware that you’re looking at spending at least one hour in the scorching Cuban sun waiting in a queue. While this might be a an authentic Cuban experience, you might want to think about changing money in your hotel lobby at the reception desk. The going rate is a bit lower, but the way I think about is it’s like paying 2 CUC for someone to spend one hour in the sun for you. And best of all, you don’t need your ID or passport to change money at the hotel since they don’t usually go through the whole legal process because they want to pocket the difference.
What if you have a credit card? Well, there aren’t many ATM’s in Cuba. For example there’s this one place in Old Havana where the have 5 sitting side by side guarded by some 5 guards and no one using them. Why haven’t they spread them out throughout the city is anyone’s guess. Also, almost no stores, restaurants or hotels have POS’s so you can’t pay by credit card anywhere. I have seen a POS at the Hospital for Foreigners and another one at the Airport Duty Free Shop and I bet they have one at the NH Parque Central Hotel as it’s the most luxurious hotel in Havana, but other than that you’ll be out of luck. Use cash.
Sometimes, Cuban won’t have change in CUC, just the National Peso. You can accept that, but keep in mind the exchange rate and that you can only use it for street food, share taxis, and basic necessities. Another trick they might pull on you is give you CUP as change when you pay with CUC. Make sure you know the notes and their value. It’s easy to get mixed up. CUPs are usually beaten up and have an old design. CUC’s are newer to touch and have an updated design. The exception is the 1 CUC note which looks and feels old just the like the CUP one.
When you leave Cuba, make sure to change all your money back to a foreign currency or spend it. You won’t be able to change Cuban Currency, even the CUC, outside of Cuba.