The subject of Cuban currency is an interesting one, and a confusing one as well. There are two official currencies, with one being used by local Cubans and one being used by tourists (more or less). In both cases, the unit of currency is the peso, but the local version is the national peso (shortened to CUP) and the tourist version is the convertible peso (CUC).
A peso is broken down into 100 centavos, much like an American or Canadian dollar is make up of 100 cents. There are 1 and 5 peso coins, as well as coins for 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 centavos. Bills come in 1, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 peso denominations.
At one time, the American dollar was universally used on the island but that is no longer the case. Many people are still not aware of this change, but its important that you don’t bring US dollars to Cuba or you will end up paying large fees to convert them (currently an extra 8% surcharge). Other currencies can be converted without the surcharge.
The convertible peso is set at a value just over that of the American dollar, and are often just referred to as dollars in Cuba. And approximately 25 national pesos equal one convertible one (1 CUC = 25 CUP). It does get confusing since they are both pesos but with different values.
Local shops typically have things priced in CUP, but stores and other tourist-focused establishments will be in CUC. So don’t be surprised to find strange swings in pricing or costs from one location to the next. For tourists who intend to stay at a resort, you’ll never need any CUP. If you’re going to actually see Cuba and explore the towns, it’s a good idea to have a supply of CUP on hand for small purchases.
If you want to see the current value of either Cuban currency (CUP or CUC), you can use an online currency converter like the one at Xe.com. They’re one of the few online sources that will convert Cuban currency.
You can avoid dealing with too much currency if you use credit cards, but the only ones that will work are those issued by NON-American banks. Also, American Express travelers cheques are also useless.
The best place to convert your cash into Cuban currency (either CUC or CUP) is at a bank, but there are currency services for exchange at most airports in Cuba, and at large hotels. It’s a good idea to work out the math before you start your transaction so you’ll know if they are cheating you. It happens often, even at reputable establishments.
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