One of the biggest differences between Cuba and the rest of the Americas and Europe is cell phone service. Cuba continues to be a society where people aren’t able to connect to the internet through their phones as easily, and so aren’t as tied to using them to check email, news and social media. That’s changing, but for the time being access to the internet and use of data reliant apps continues to be a completely different experience than it is in most of the world. Here are some tips for how to navigate the cell phone situation during your trip:
You may have wifi in your hotel, and in some casas particulares it’s being offered, but the most reliable way to get on the internet continues to be at a pubic wifi hotspot, of which there are many throughout the city of Havana as well as smaller cities and towns. To access it, you have to go to a hot spot — usually a park or intersection and identifiable by the small groups of people huddling around screens — and purchase a one hour internet card, which are sold by Cubans hanging out around the periphery of the hot spot like scalpers at a concert. At current writing, even with a reduction in the cost per minute by the government, the 60 minute cards continue to sell for 3 CUC. (Some casa hosts are now offering cards as a convenience as well.) There are sometimes logon glitches that require several tries, and connection speed will depend on the number of people connected to the network, as well as other more mysterious factors (like weather).
If you have an emergency, or you’re a total baller, you can just use your phone on roaming with any of the major U.S. providers: Verizon, Sprint, ATT, and T-Mobile. Rates are expensive, around $3 per minute for a call and $2/mb for data. You can easily rack up an extra $25-50 in charges even with mild use over the course of a few days, especially if you allow apps to work in the background. Simply checking email on a mail app will probably only cost a few dollars a day though, so if you are only going to turn your phone on a handful of times, and you turn off automatic download functions, you may want to just eat the roaming charges. You won’t be at the mercy of the wifi hotspots and the prepaid card system, although the downside is that if you’re planning on using it to text a Cuban friend or a taxi driver you won’t likely hear back from them, since they’ll be paying international rates to to connect to your phone number.
There are several ways to get a local cell phone. There are ETECSA offices at the airports that offer basic mobile phone contracts starting 10 CUC per day (plus a 100 CUC refundable deposit) and taxi drivers who work at the airport offer cell phones to passengers at various prices. They work on a prepaid system that you can recharge at various cell phone stores and ETECSA offices throughout Havana. Some casas also offer phone rentals. We work with one casa — Casa Jesús y Gloria — that offers complementary use of a cell phone during guests’ time at the house. The phones are ready to use and full of helpful contacts, so all guests have to do is add money to the account if it runs out.
Local calls on a Cuban cell phone are 0.35 CUC per minute and 0.09 CUC per text sent. In contrast to roaming on a foreign phone, a local cell phone gives you the advantage of being able to receive calls and texts from Cubans with cell phones, which helps when coordinating transportation, arrival at casas, or meeting up with locals.
If you want to use your own phone but want a local Cuban SIM card, ETECSA offers them at 3 CUC per day. You can get one at any ETECSA office, though these offices are few, often have lines and can be unpredictable with their hours. You’ll need an unblocked GSM-capable phone, and you’ll then load credit onto it like you would with any Cuban cell phone, by taking it to an ETECSA or private cell phone store.
Pre-Trip App Downloads
If you don’t want to use roaming or rent a phone, a good option is to shut shut off all cellular and data network capabilities and just use your phone at wifi hotspots and as a helpful offline pocket-computer. There are a variety of apps that offer offline translation, maps, and guides to Cuba, as well as downloadable PDF guides from various websites on the internet. Someday soon, we’ll start offering our own guide with tips and other content from the blog.
The Landline Option
If you really want to go cold turkey and live like it’s 1995 again, just turn your phone off or leave it at home, and bask in the sublime freedom of not having to “check in.” Enjoy the quaint pleasures of writing numbers down on scraps of paper, planning meet-ups hours or days in advance, and having to ask your hosts to let you make a call from their landline. And if all of that isn’t enough, try using a pay phone…
Addendum: The Concept of the Perdida
If you are going to be using a cell phone to communicate with locals, there are a few Cuban idiosyncrasies you should know about. First, is that sometimes the network is fickle: a weak signal makes it impossible to hear, and sometimes a text looks like it’s been sent, but it hasn’t yet been received. Also, calling and texting is charged at per-minute and per-text rates, so not a flat rate plan like in most countries. If you break down the math, once you’ve sent four texts to someone, you might as well have just called them (as long as the call is under a minute…).
One way to get around these inconveniences is to utilize the perdida , or “call-and-hang-up,” as a means of communicating. This maneuver costs nothing, but it lets the person you’re calling know you’re trying to get in touch with them, and then if they want they can call back, or find a landline, making the call much cheaper. Mysteriously, the perdida also works as a way to push a text to the receiver after it’s been sent, to make sure it gets there. After sending a text, if you send a perdida, the text will quickly show up at the receiving end if it hasn’t already. And no, no one can explain why.