I imagine you’ve heard horror stories about the internet situation in Cuba. It certainly isn’t possible to live a digital nomad lifestyle here… You’re better off to go to Mexico. Right?
Not necessarily. I’ve worked remotely from Cuba and loved it.
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How you can live a digital nomad lifestyle and work remotely from Cuba
A little history...
Internet and Cuba are two words which don’t really go well together. It has only been since 2018 that the island has had access to 3G. Read that again and let it sink in.
When I first came to Cuba there was no discussion about having data roaming on our phones. I remember trying to outsmart the system by thinking of various loopholes: maybe if I just buy a local sim card I’ll be able to check my emails? Maybe if I just switch on data roaming with my UK sim card, even if it costs a lot? Turns out I wasn’t that smart.
How we communicated long-distance before 3G was available
My first Cuban novio and I maintained contact between Cuba and the UK by me racking up a disgustingly large phone bill. I’d buy credit on Skype and phone him a couple of times a day. I don’t care to think how much money I spent, but you live and learn.
Ronnie (the now husband) and I had our first long-distance stint during the summer of 2017. Ronnie had never owned a smartphone of any sort, and had never connected to the internet. I even had to explain to him what the internet was. I remember just telling him that the internet was Facebook! He’d heard of Facebook (Feybu, as the Cubans say) but didn’t have an interest nor, to be honest, see the point in it.
My parents had just come out to visit, and my dad left him with a battered old Android phone. I marched him up to the town centre one day, showed him how to go into ETECSA (the one and only technological company in Cuba), and buy a WiFi card. 1CUC/USD for 1 hour of internet.
We sat in the plaza and I talked him through which buttons to press, how to scratch off the password on the WiFi card, and help him navigate his stocky farmer’s fingers over the keyboard to find the right letters to key in. It really was an eye-opening moment for me, as well as him.
Things to bare in mind when planning to work remotely from Cuba
1. Different ways of connecting
To work remotely from Cuba you’ll be relying on two main streams of connectivity: WiFi cards and 3G data. Some areas even have 4G coverage now.
Access to WiFI & how to connect:
For access to WiFi you’ll need to find a connection point, which you can do at most of the following:
- major town squares/parks
- most mainstream hotels
- some bars/cafes
- some private accommodations (casas/AirBnBs)
It’s hard to miss the WiFi areas. Just look for large groups of people huddled together staring at their phones.
You’ll need to buy a WiFi card, which costs the equivalent of 1USD (24CUP) for 1 hour.
Buy the card in any ETECSA office (located easily in all major towns), scratch off the login and password, connect to WIFI ETECSA on your phone/laptop. Once you connect, your browser should automatically open and show you a login page. If it doesn’t do this automatically, open up the browser yourself and type 220.127.116.11.
When you’re finished, you’ll want to log out. The WiFi card is valid for an hour but will stop timing when you log out. You can later log in to the same card until your hour runs out.
To log out, simply turn off your WiFi.
NOTE: you can also buy 5 hour cards. This is my personal preference so that when I’m working I don’t have to worry about the shorter cards running out so quickly.
Access to 3G/4G data roaming:
Another great way to work remotely from Cuba nowadays is the revolutionary access to 3G/4G on your mobile. This may sound simple, but it’s not always been possible in Cuba.
You (the tourist) can’t connect to 3G from your own sim, but you can now buy or rent a local Cuban sim card.
When I first landed here, it was impossible and illegal to get your hands on a cuban sim card as a tourist. It just wasn’t the done thing – you accepted the enforced digital detox (and you enjoyed it!).
These days things are changing. It is now possible for you to rent or buy a cuban sim card as a tourist. Also many owners of private accommodations (casas/AirBnBs) offer to loan/rent you a spare sim card of theirs. This is great, but it’s also a way for them to control you and your travels around the island (will be writing about this behaviour in a later blog).
How do I buy a sim card in Cuba?
If you’re just coming here for a couple of weeks travelling, I personally wouldn’t bother trying to buy a sim card.
It’s a lot of hassle, data is expensive, and there’s plenty of WiFi for you not to need 3G.
But, if you’re in Cuba for a month or more and really would benefit from having 3G, I get it. It is great to have it on-the-go, especially if you’ve got e-mails to check or IG to keep up with.
I’ve outlined below how to get a sim. Just remember that things in Cuba change all the time and often things don’t go to plan, so don’t send me hate mail if the below doesn’t go to plan.
- Go to an ETECSA office. Take your passport and google translate app/someone who speaks Spanish.
- The sim card costs 750 CUP (just over 30 USD).
- It will take a couple of days to activate – be patient.
- To top up credit/data, I swear by Rebtel – simply buy credit with your debit/credit card (with a VPN). Don’t forget to download the app before you go and keep an eye out for the ‘bonus’ (promotions) which happen around every three weeks or so.
How to connect to 3G
If you do decide to get your hands on a cuban sim to access the internet, you’ll want to know how to buy the data.
Once you have the cuban sim card (you’ll need an unlocked phone), you’ll need to buy a ‘paquete’ (internet packet) of data. Here’s how to do that:
Step 1) dial *133#
Step 2) choose how much data you want – I go large and choose option 4
Step 3) follow the steps & it will complete the transaction. You’ll receive a confirmation text message and you’re good to go.
If you want to check how much data you have left, dial *222*328#
The above seems relatively simple however I highly recommend you connect for the first time near to an ETECSA shop. Why? Because sometimes our phones aren’t properly set up and they need to press some buttons & work some wizardry for you to be able to connect to their data roaming. I’m no techy so I can’t advise. No worries if you don’t speak Spanish – get up your google translate app, pop your phone in Spanish language, and hand it over to them.
If you have Cuban family/friends/novios:
… call in a favour. Cubans can have up to 3 sim cards in their name. If you have a Cuban novio/a or friends and family, it might be easier to get them to buy one for you.
Ronnie got me one years ago in his name and I’ve had it ever since. It cost him 30USD including a bono of 30USD (as part of a promotion).
ETECSA has promotions on frequently and for different amounts, so you’d need to enquire. Sometimes you go and buy a sim for 30USD and they give you a small telephone included (yes really!). Sometimes it costs 30 or 20 for the sim and you get the same amount of credit included. It all depends on live promotions at the time.
2. It isn't cheap
I used to work from 3Js in Viñales town center for a few mornings a week. I try to base my working hours on the 4hour work week, but do a 4 hour working day instead. Out of choice: it’s my time to reflect, think, connect with the world and have some time away from Ronnie.
WiFi in 3Js is great (the best in Viñales by a mile) and the men working there save me my ‘desk’ every morning: by the window looking out on the market. Impeccable service: they left me in peace to work (i.e. didn’t try to chat me up), and bought me cafe con leche on tap.
My average bill for a morning’s work came to around 10-15USD, depending on how hungry I was. Sometimes I managed to fill up on coffee and free biscuits, other days I wanted a big breakfast to fuel me for the day.
That, paired with the cost of the WiFi cards, meant it wasn’t the cheapest ‘work remotely’ situation, but also isn’t unachievable.
I claim it on expenses and think, if this is the price of my ‘office rent’, it isn’t really so bad. For the luxury of working remotely from Cuba, I’d happily pay a little extra anyway. Wouldn’t you?
3. VPN is essential
If you don’t already know (because I didn’t before coming to Cuba!), a VPN essentially tricks your electronic devices to make them think they’re in another country.
It is a great way to navigate any geographic restrictions on websites or streaming audio/video, as well as protecting yourself from snooping or untrustworthy Wi-Fi hotspots.
I use ExpressVPN and find it affordable and easy. I’ve never had any troubles accessing my UK banks, accounts, Netflix, emails etc. I link it to 4 items: laptop, my phone & Ronnie’s phone, and our tablet.
If you’re thinking about purchasing it, please consider supporting me by using my affiliate link – click here.
4. Be aware of the following common issues:
Long lines to buy the WiFI cards
- Most ETECSA offices are open every day from around 8:30am-6pm, but not all so check beforehand.
- You’ll need your passport, cash and the service will most likely be in Spanish.
- You’ll need to queue outside the shop – only 2 people allowed in at a time (even pre-coronavirus!). I’ll be writing a blog about queuing in Cuba because there’s an art to it, so keep an eye out for that if you’re planning a trip soon.
Power cuts can happen at any time, island wide, and with no warning. Sometimes an entire town can be without electricity for days on end, and so, no WiFI. It’s not hugely common to have a multi-day power cut.
The majority last for an afternoon or even a whole day/night. But if you can’t take that risk – because it’s very likely you’ll experience one – Cuba probably isn’t the best country for you to be working remotely from.
Bad connection speed
As you can imagine, the speed of the WiFi here simply won’t compare to yours back home, period.
If you absolutely need super fast fiberoptic broadband to survive in your work place, Cuba isn’t the place for you.
If you’re work is based on video-conferences, Zoom meetings etc, it can be done with the caveat that the connection might well be crackly/slow/terrible at times.
Having said that, I often do WhatsApp calls both on WiFI and 3G when I’m in Cuba, and they’re perfectly fine. I always let the person on the other end know the situation so they know what’s happening if I suddenly disappear. It’s also a great excuse if you want to end the conversation quickly but can’t find a way out.
In Havana the best place for you to find strong connection is in Havana Vieja. I personally prefer the WiFi in Viñales, though. Many people say that outside of Havana the internet is terrible but they obviously haven’t spent time around my neck of the woods. As mentioned before, head to 3Js in Viñales town center and your connection will rival that of Havana.
'Free wifi' doesn't mean 'good wifi'
Many bars and restaurants now offer ‘free wifi’.
Sit, buy a mojito and some croquetas, and connect to their box.
Though as great as this sounds, it is most often a nightmare.
If it’s a private bar (like most) the WiFi box will likely be a private one.
The owner will be sharing the password with you, and several other people at the same time. With everyone connecting at the same time to a weak signal, you’ll end up drowning your sorrows in said mojitos and not getting any work done at all.
Prepare your devices BEFORE you arrive to Cuba
Because of the restrictions in Cuba, there are some websites that you won’t have access to (hence the need for the VPN).
It’s essential that you do this right: it’s no use arriving in Cuba, deciding that you want internet connection, and trying to download a VPN to access AirBnB/online banking etc.
By that point, it’s already too late. How can you download a VPN from the App Store if you can’t access the App Store without a VPN? (I know this because it happened to me!)
Before you travel, make sure you’re prepared. Download the VPN on all devices, log in and activate them.
Ever considered a real Digital Detox though?
We come from a generation that is constantly attached to their phone. Whether messaging mum on WhatsApp, answering work emails when you’re not at work, or uploading your Stories to Instagram every hour, it’s relentless.
If you’re coming to Cuba as a holiday, I’d recommend trying to take a real break from your life: put on your OOO (out-of-office) and leave your laptop at home.
The first time I came to Cuba I went absolutely tee-total. I did a complete digital detox, and I absolutely loved it. I sent a text message to mum every other day to let her know I was alive, and the rest of the time I spent living. In the moment. And it literally changed my life.
Be mindful of the real situation at hand...
Whilst you, the tourist, can use the digital detox to your selfish advantage & might come home bragging about how great it is, it is also important to spare a thought about the reality for the Cuban people.
Imagine living in a country where you had to pay the equivalent of 1USD for only 1 hour of (poor) internet connection.
Imagine that you had to source a public WiFi spot and haul your laptop/tablet/phone there to maintain contact or even a manage business.
Imagine not being able to FaceTime your mum who lives in a different country because your state salary only gives you about 25USD per month, which doesn’t even cover the cost of your food.
Imagine you’re trying to make a living in the private sector by renting out your accommodation or experiences on AirBnB. You want to keep in touch with friends on social media. Or even expand your horizons by reading up on Wikipedia… but you don’t actually have the means to connect to the internet.
The ‘luxury’ of having access to internet in Cuba costs money that the average Cuban doesn’t have.
So just be mindful: the reality of Cuba isn’t all sunshine and mojitos.
If you haven’t read the above and just want a quick summary, here you go:
- you can work remotely from Cuba in 2021 (post-corona…because Cuba still isn’t great for tourism right now)
- you can connect to WiFi and 3G but it’s not as straightforward as other countries
- you’ll need a VPN and to read my other tips & tricks as above
- expect the unexpected – if you’re in a 9-5 job and absolutely HAVE to be connected, without fail, working remotely in Cuba isn’t the best idea for you.
- if you are your own boss, or have flexibility in your working day, and don’t fear the odd power cut, Cuba could be for you.
Let me know in a comment below if you’ve had any experiences working in Cuba, or are planning to do so. I’m proof it can work if you know what to expect and can be flexible (and have patience!)
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