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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.
Greylist

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.

Basics Edit

Etecsa

Mobile telephony in Cuba Edit

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:

  • Cubacel
  • C-com

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 Edit

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 Havanna. 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) Edit

Cubacel

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 today a 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 many areas Cubacel started to deploy a 3G network on 900 MHz for roaming customers only. In 2018 Cubacel runs 1400 GSM and 520 3G base stations. 3G coverage is verified in main tourist areas in these 15 provinces: Artemisa, Camagüey, Ciego de Ávila, Cienfuegos, Granma, Guantánamo, Holguín, La Habana (Havanna), Las Tunas, Manatzas, Mayabeque, Pinar del Río, Sancti Spíritus, Santiago de Cuba and Villa Clara.

At the end of 2018 about 789 3G stations cover about 68% of the population. In 2018 ETECSA also started to deploy 4G/LTE presumably for roaming customers. Frequencies in the 700 (B28) and 1800 MHz (B3) bands are used.

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".

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.

In September 2018 the third trial for local mobile internet use on Cubacel SIM cards was executed. On September 8-10 any Cubacel customer could use two 50 MB data packs on the Cubacel 2G and 3G networks for free. More than 1.5 million users participated and brought the whole network down. So many people were eagerly expecting December 2018 when mobile internet was finally launched to Cuban cititzens.

Availability Edit

These rules are frequently changing. Starting in 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 only CUC 3 and need to be pre-paid 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 Edit

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 Edit

In December 2018 ETECSA finally launched mobile internet services via the island's 3G network 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:

  • 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.

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.

More info Edit

Renting a cellphone in Cuba Edit

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 Edit

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.

Recharges Edit

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.

RecargasaCuba Edit

Irish mobile payments company Ding who is more renowed for high premiums on recharges has announced an agreement with Cuba's state-owned telecommunications operator Etecsa in June 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.

Roaming with your home provider Edit

Roaming

Alternatively, you may choose to stay on roaming 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) Edit

WiFi Logo.svg

WiFi Hotspots Edit

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.

You can locate their WiFi hotspots here and the navigation centers here.

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.

Nauta vouchers Edit

Nauta front-0

At and around these spots Nauta vouchers are sold officially in three different denominations. In 2017 the prices were again lowered:

  • 1/2 hour: 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 Edit

Nauta back

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 1.1.1.1 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 Edit

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 Edit

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.