If you’re a cigar smoker and you’ve never enjoyed a bona fide Habano, then you’re missing out on a cornucopia of smells and flavors that are the pinnacle of the experience. And it’s not just because you see NBA Champs or Hollywood A-listers light ’em up with reckless abandon. Cuban cigars are coveted because of the rich and complex smoking experience that’s unique in the cigar world. Don’t be fooled by cigar companies that tout “Cuban seed tobacco” because real Cuban leaf tobacco comes from a small and very specific location in the Vuelta Abajo area of Pinar del Río Province near the town of San Luis. The conditions and rich distinct subsoil are perfect for great, flavorful tobacco that tastes and smells like no other tobacco on earth. Sure, we still love smoking cigars from other regions such as Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic, but none of those can replicate the flavor of a Cubano cigar.
This all begs the question we ask every freakin’ year, “Can I bring Cuban cigars to America on my travels?” This is the latest from Customs and Border Protection:
“Effective September 24, 2020, authorized travelers may no longer return to the United States with alcohol and/or tobacco products acquired in Cuba as accompanied baggage for personal use.” Okay, we get it.
“Persons authorized to travel to Cuba may purchase alcohol and tobacco products while in Cuba for personal consumption in Cuba.” Gee, thanks.
“Persons subject to United States jurisdiction may purchase or acquire Cuban-origin merchandise, including alcohol and tobacco products, while in a third country for personal consumption outside the United States.” Wow. How generous.
So, Why Are Cuban Cigars Illegal in the US?
Now that we’ve established that Cuban cigars are deemed contraband (illegal), we really need to know why this level of suffering exists in the first place.
Well, without giving you an intensive history lesson, Cuba is a Communist country, and there’s a full embargo on trade with the country. In February 1962, President Kennedy proclaimed an embargo on trade between the United States and Cuba (right after he scrambled the Secret Service to snatch up as many Cuban stogies as they could). There was a temporary exception to the embargo. Back in 2016, President Obama lifted the embargo on Cuban rum and cigars, as well as to re-establish diplomatic relations and to loosen travel and economic policies between the two countries. But President Trump put the restrictions back in September of 2020 citing Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, as well as imposing new sanctions on Cuba. The embargo that makes Cuban cigars illegal in the U.S. remains in effect today. Keep in mind that Cubano tobacco accounts for about 20% of Cuban exports, so it’s not small potatoes.
So, shy of going up to Canada, Mexico, or flying overseas to smoke your Cuban stogie on foreign soil, what’s a guy to do? Well, keep in mind that there is no legal way to get Cuban cigars in America. It’s not just illegal to bring Cubano cigars here, but it’s also illegal to engage in any kind of transaction whether it’s buying them or selling them. There is no caveat, but there are ways to purchase and acquire them that probably won’t result in fines and/or jail time. We’re, by no means, encouraging you to break the law.
Purchasing Cubano Cigars on Your Travels
Whether you buy at an airport duty-free shop (flying out of the U.S., as there are no Cuban cigars at duty-free shops in the U.S.) or at a cigar shop, you still have to pay attention. Cuban cigars in some countries are highly regulated (like the UK), so you’re likely to get the real deal. But there are counterfeits out there in droves, even in Cuba. Do your homework before you buy and take a look at what legit bands look like, as well as cigar construction. Cubano cigars typically have three glued caps (non-figurados), but counterfeit cigars also copy this level of construction. Never, ever buy cigars advertised as Cuban that are wrapped individually in cellophane or housed in clear-top boxes. These are fakes. Also, do not assume that because a duty-free shop sells Cuban cigars it means they’re properly humidified. You could very well spend $400 on a box of Montecristo No. 2s, only to discover they are dry and virtually unsmokeable.
If you so choose to take a chance and bring some Cubano cigars back to the states, make sure you only bring back a handful so as not to arouse any suspicion about contraband. Throw out the box, very carefully remove the bands so as not to damage the outer cigar leaf wrapper, then keep them in a travel case or a leather finger case with just a few sticks inside. Customs has no way of inspecting cigars for Cuban tobacco when you fly back, so it’s better to keep them anonymous rather than risk bringing Habanos banded sticks inside the matching cigar box in which you purchase them. Smoke most of them on your travels and bring a handful back. This is the best way to remain low on the radar.
At the end of the day, buying Cubano cigars overseas to bring back to the states, as well as buying Cuban cigars online for shipment to our shores, is illegal. Bringing them here is done at your own risk, but unless you’re trying to bring in a full box or more, you’re probably not going to get fined or see jail time. The worst thing that can happen is that Customs will confiscate your precious Habanos and destroy them (potentially in a series of small, slow-burning fires), and you’ll be out some money (and some seriously good cigar smoking pleasure). Consider yourself warned, and enjoy safely.