Staying in Touch in Cuba

While communication in Cuba is admittedly sometimes a challenge, it’s not impossible these days to stay connected with friends, family and even your business while traveling in Cuba. Growing up in PEI, our family home had a party line and if you were so inclined, you could listen in on all your neighbors’ conversations – rural life can be boring if you’re not keeping abreast of the gossip. So moving to Cuba wasn’t necessarily such a big step backwards in terms of technology for me. In our first year of operations in an ecological property located somewhat off the beaten path in Santiago de Cuba, my brothers had to get out the shovels and dig a very deep hole so that they could install a radio phone (with the phone company’s blessing) just to remain in contact with our office in Canada. The villa relied exclusively on walkie-talkies for all contact with other areas in Cuba. There was no international phone at the property. During the two decades I’ve been living here, I’ve gone from dialing on a rotary phone and struggling to send/receive faxes from the post office to having relatively inexpensive phone and mediocre internet service at home. Granted, it’s sometimes maddeningly slow, but eventually most of the messages get through. Following is a summary of current options for staying in touch while you’re traveling in Cuba.

ETECSA is Cuba’s national communications company. Through Etecsa and their partners, visitors can acquire domestic and international telephone service, cellular service in Cuba, and internet.

LAND LINES
All hotels in Cuba have international  telephone access.  Rates for calls are fixed depending on the hotel’s star rating (the higher the star rating, the more they can charge you, up to a maximum posted rate). Charges for telephone calls in hotels are processed by the minute, not portions thereof.
An alternative to using your hotel’s telephone service is to purchase a pre-paid international calling card in Cuba (from $10 CUC), which you can use from any public or private telephone and your card will automatically be discounted according to usage (by the second). The cards can also be used for national telephone calls in Cuba. There is a separate card (Tarjeta Propia) sold in national money for domestic use only which is by far the most economical option for calls within Cuba, and usually more convenient than public coin telephones. The card can also be used in public telephones (rather than using coins) or from private homes. Current international rates for phone cards/international cellular calls are as follows:

Destination Residential Commercial
USA/Canada

$1.40 USD/min

$2.45

Central America, Mexico & the Caribbean

$1.40

$3.40

Venezuela

$1.00

$3.40

Rest of South America

$1.40

$4.45

Rest of the world

$1.50

$5.85


CELL PHONES
Some cell companies (now including Verizon from the USA) offer roaming/data plans that include Cuba. Check with your provider for details. If not using a roaming plan in Cuba, you will want to remember to keep your phone in airplane mode to avoid excessive charges. Cuba operates on the GSM system, using the 900 MHz band. If your cell phone operates on the same system/band, it will have widespread coverage in Cuba. Even though they are equipped with GPS (which, according to Cuban customs, is not permissible), iPhones are accepted for entry. For cheaper calling within Cuba, visitors can activate a temporary line/SIM card from an ETECSA airport/city office on an unlocked 900-MHz GSM phone , the current rate is $3.00 CUC/day plus $6.00 CUC/day for optional equipment rental. A minimum $10.00 CUC recharge (prepaid call credit) and passport presentation are required.

Cuban SIM card call rates:
RATES FOR CUBAN CELL PHONE CALLS IN CUBA (CUC/minute)
Between prepaid cell phones
07:00 – 22:59 (Normal Rate) – Outgoing call $0.35/minute / Incoming call from landline $0.35/minute
23:00 – 06:59 (Reduced Rate) – Outgoing call $0.10/minute / Incoming call from landline $0.10/minute

INTERNATIONAL CALLS (CUC/minute)
Price/Region:
$1.60/minute: North America, South America, Central America (except Venezuela), the Caribbean
$1.40/minute: Venezuela
$1.80/minute: Rest of the world

SMS
Send a text in Cuba $0.09 (free to receive)
Send an international text from Cuba $1.00 (free to receive)

INTERNET: Warning: connection times are typically much slower than what you are probably used to. Skype doesn’t work here except from some wifi connections, and if sending attachments reduce their size prior to sending, unless you have alot of time and money to burn. Just checking my daily email and bank accounts in the morning can sometimes take me more than an hour and several attempts on a dial-up account. You tend to forget about these things when you live in the developed world where broadband is the norm.
ETECSA Multiservice Centers:
ETECSA has a network of public computers across the country where you can purchase 30 minute or 1 hour internet access cards from $1CUC/30 minutes. Use is normally limited to daytime connections when an attendant is present and you sometimes have to wait your turn in a lineup of locals/visitors.
Cybercafes: Found in many hotels, airports and convention centers primarily in tourism poles. Internet access cards can be purchased in 30 minute or 1 hour increments from $4-$12 CUC.
Wifi Access in Cuba: is expanding rapidly in Cuba in many public locations. Identification is sometimes required to purchase the $2 CUC/hour Nauta access codes/cards for access at WIFI_ETECSA hotspots. The bandwidth is often saturated during daytime/early evening hours. View rates for temporary & permanent connections.

Important Telephone Numbers:
Ambulance: 104, Fire Station: 105, National Police: 106, Information: 113

To make an international call from a public, cellular or residential phone in Cuba: Dial 119 + country code/área code/telephone #

With the opening of private businesses in Cuba, the Yellow Pages are also becoming an increasingly interesting source of information. Their party, room rental, photography, furniture, and cafeteria/restaurants sections have expanded. There’s even pickup/delivery laundry service listed there now.

For alot of people, coming to Cuba is almost like going off the grid. Depending on where you go, it’s very possible that’s what it’ll feel like. It’s in stark contrast to the hyper-connected direction that developed countries have taken, where people have their eyes constantly glued on their smart phones/tablets, and text instead of talk. It’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re on vacation. You might just even have a chance to truly reconnect with yourself and those around you.

4 thoughts on “Staying in Touch in Cuba

  1. Great information. Did you ever notice a lag while talking to people over there? I was recently in Cuba, and did a photo shoot for the resort we were staying in. I am trying to send them the images, one or maximum 2 at a time, and when I call to see if they have received them, they have a 3 second lapse between me talking and them answering. Is this a big brother situation, or is it just crappy phone lines?

    • Kevin, my best guess would be the latter. It’s rare that I receive an international call here in Cuba on a good line and I’ve learned to deal with the delay in telephone conversations. Most people in Cuba are used to it. Email usually works much better for me than phone calls. Since I posted this blog there’ve been a few updates such as:
      -a few more hotels with wi-fi connections (although the cards you need to actually connect can sometimes be elusive)
      -email accounts on Cuban cell phones which cost less than texting. Which has in turn put an excessive demand on the cell network, making it impossible to get through by calling many cell phones in Cuba when you want/need to now.
      -my $60/80 hrs/month dial-up internet account was suddenly upgraded (with no previous announcement) to 220 hours/month in February. It was a very happy day when I finally figured it out. Although it’s as slow (or slower) than ever. This morning I spent 4-5 hours trying to put a recharge on my cellphone via http://www.ezetop.com, since there’s a promotion for a few days where you get double the amount you top up applied to your phone. For $54.98 USD right now I get $100 CUC in credit. I was more than a little miffed by the cute little message they sent when I finally scored a complete on the payment screen. Something along the lines of the “easiest” way to top up your cell phone. Yeah, right. Come knock on my door and tell me that to my face, why don’t you?!?! There are days when I could tear my hear out trying to communicate from Cuba, but my best advice is just to take a deep breath, or better yet, take a break and try again later.

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