Using Wi-Fi in Cuba is, admittedly, a big pain in the neck compared to what one is accustomed to. It can be inconvenient and time consuming. Here are a few ways to minimize the hassle while accessing Wi-Fi in Cuba.
BEGIN WEANING YOURSELF OFF THE INTERNET BEFORE YOU ARRIVE IN CUBA
Know that accessing Wi-Fi in Cuba will be annoying so try to minimize your need to do so. Start before you leave on your trip. Download and store key files to your device so you can access them offline when and if needed. Taking screenshots of documents will store them in your photos. Key files can include your itinerary, passport, pictures, recommendations from various websites, reservations and maps. One map app I use that is accessible offline is Maps.me. You can learn more about Maps.me here.
Ease yourself into the realization that the internet will not be as readily accessible as it is at home. Being disconnected for days at a time can actually be a welcome experience. Explain to your family and friends that they will not be hearing from you as frequently as they’d expect so they don’t worry.
ONCE IN CUBA – FIRST THINGS FIRST
There are two things required to get online in Cuba: a prepaid internet Wi-Fi card and a hot spot. The card comes in one-hour and five-hour denominations and is available at any ETECSA location and high-end hotels. That’s why some people refer to it as an ETECSA card. ETECSA is the government-owned entity that runs all telecommunications in Cuba including internet service and Wi-Fi. ETECSA offices are located all over Cuba especially in the bigger cities. They are easy to find, just ask anyone and look for a place with long lines outside the door.
Government entities tend to be sclerotic and bureaucratic all over the world but Cuba can elevate this to another dimension of Kafkaesque inefficiency. ETECSA is no exception. You will have to wait on lines that move painfully slow to get your ETECSA card, but it will be cheaper than in most hotels, about CUC1.50 for a one- hour denomination card. Five-hour denomination cards are also available.
To purchase an internet card one must present a passport so whatever you log on to on the internet can be linked back to you. Keep your card safe to ensure it is not stolen.
Avoid the lines at ETECSA by figuring out how much internet time you will need and buying several cards at the same time. This way you won’t have to go through this process more than once or twice. If you have leftover cards or time, give them to friends you have made during your visit or your “casa” hostess. It will be appreciated.
People outside of ETECSA may approach you as you stand in line in the hot sun and try to sell you ETECSA cards at a higher price. I’ve purchased them just to avoid the line and it worked fine. However, I’ve heard that some of these cards are fake so you may just prefer to endure the long line and not risk getting scammed.
OK, SO YOU’VE SECURED YOUR ETECSA CARD. NOW WHAT
Now you must find a hot spot to launch your Wi-Fi in Cuba adventure. Luckily, they are not so difficult to find. The best way to find a hot spot location is to notice the areas where you see groups of Cubans congregating staring into cell phones and laptops.
Most ETECSA offices and the surrounding area are hot spots. Other locations include higher-end hotel lobbies, parks, and entire sections of the city.
PROS AND CONS OF HOTSPOT LOCATIONS FOR WI-FI IN CUBA
The advantages of a hotel hot spot are:
• You get to chill in an air-conditioned environment in comfortable chairs and maybe get a snack while you’re at it.
• The internet at these locations tends to be more reliable although don’t expect fast-speed.
• Most enticingly, you don’t have to wait on long lines.
The downside is that this service will cost you a bit more. Cards at hotels can go from about 3 CUC to 7 CUC. I once paid the outrageous price of 7 CUC in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional for an hour of Wi-Fi, but the Nacional is considered the Grand Dame of hotels in the country; historical, well located with a spectacular view of the ocean.
Many of these hotels will require that you buy something, like a drink at the bar, before they agree to sell you a card. This is fine. You just sit at the bar having a daiquiri or a mojito while you chew up your internet time and chat up the locals.
The other option for hot spots are the public parks in the bigger cities. Any local will point them out to you. In Havana these spots are in the most popular and trafficked areas like Havana Vieja, the busy streets of La Rampa and San Rafael and the Malecon (Havana sea wall).
Other popular cities like Trinidad, Santiago, Viñales, Cienfuegos and Varadero have hot spots too and you won’t have difficulty finding them. The service can be spotty. Sometimes you’ll try to log on and it will take so long that you’ll assume it’s not working. Be patient.
As of the summer of 2017 some casas particulares have been granted permission to have Wi-Fi. The assumption is that Wi-Fi availability will continue to grow in Cuba.
Here is a list of places where you can access the internet on the island. The number of hot spot locations is constantly growing but this should get you started.
THE FINAL HURDLE
You have your card and you’ve found your ideal location. Now its time for your final hurdle; the log on.
The ETECSA cards are the size of regular credit cards and have scratch-off areas for the username (usuario) and password (clave). To log on follow these steps:
1. Scratch off the areas revealing username and password
2. Open the Wi-Fi settings on your device and connect to the ETECSA network
3. Launch your web browser
4. When the login screen appears enter your username and password
Once you’re connected, you’ll see a screen telling you how much time or credit you have left on your card.
I try to use up my entire hour at one time rather than use half an hour, then log in again later to use up the other half. I’ve had trouble logging off then back on again with the same card. That’s why I prefer to buy single hour cards.
If you decide to log off before using up the time on the card, make sure to close your session so you don’t continue to get charged. Insert 126.96.36.199. into the address bar. A screen will pop up telling you how much time you have left and you will see the words “cerrar sesion” (close session). Click on that to log out and close your browser.
These tips and recommendations should make your Wi-Fi in Cuba experience a little less onerous and time-consuming leaving you more time to enjoy what this beautiful country has to offer.
What experiences have you had accessing internet and Wi-Fi in Cuba or in other parts of the world?
If you are heading to Cuba, I recommend Airbnb, and here is a $40 credit towards your first stay.
And don’t forget my new book, The Ultimate Cuba Travel Guide, available on Amazon.