Every afternoon, crowds of Cubans gather outside Havana's top hotels—mob boss Meyer Lansky's favorite Nacional de Cuba, Ernest Hemingway's old haunt Ambos Mundos, and the Habana Libre (the former Hilton, which served as Fidel Castro's headquarters in 1958). The throngs aren't queuing for jobs or waiting to get into clubs. With iPhones, tablets, or other devices in hand, they're surfing the Internet in the only way most Cubans are able to do so: via public Wi-Fi.
Cuba is one of the toughest countries in the world in which to get online. Only about 30 percent of Cubans are considered to be Internet users, placing the country 126th among 202 territories tracked by the World Bank in 2014. That's due to tight restrictions on the flow of information: U.S. pro-democracy think tank Freedom House ranks Cuba 61st among 65 countries it monitors for Internet freedom.
“The situation is changing, but it’s still a great distance from being efficient in terms of communications,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a researcher in New York.
For Americans planning to visit the island as once-frosty relations between the U.S. and Cuba begin to warm—scheduled commercial flights are expected to start this year—getting online will be a real hassle. While most big hotels now have wireless Internet for a fee, the large numbers of locals and visitors using it mean service can be slow. As for getting online with your smartphone, it's theoretically possible, but don't count on it. And while Airbnb has hundreds of listings for Havana, there's little chance of finding Wi-Fi in a private home. Residential broadband is almost unheard of on the island.
Verizon Wireless customers should be able to get online through a roaming agreement with Vodafone. But two friends who visited Cuba recently said they had trouble using it. (Verizon said it hasn’t heard of major complaints about roaming in Cuba and that the service is reliable.) The package will run you $2.99 per minute for phone calls and $2.05 per megabyte of data, enough for about a dozen Instagram photos. Sprint offers roaming in Cuba for $2.49 a minute and $1.99 per megabyte of data. T-Mobile and AT&T don't offer roaming on the island.
“My grandkids couldn’t believe there was a place in the world that you couldn’t turn on your phone and get anything you wanted,” said Brian Starer, a partner in New York at law firm Squire Patton Boggs who recently took his family on vacation to Cuba. “They were constantly looking at their screen hoping something would pop up.”
For people with European cell service, the situation is better. I have an account with Vodafone, which gave me decent data and voice access most of the time. I was able to use e-mail without too much problem, though at times it was delayed by a half-hour or so. I managed to make several voice calls using the WhatsApp messaging application, and once I even used my phone to create a mobile hotspot that I linked to my computer to stream video from YouTube—though most of the time, the data was too slow for streaming.
Another option is to buy a local SIM card for your phone. My colleague José Enrique Arrioja paid 40 convertible pesos, or CUC, ($40) for a prepaid card, which included 40 minutes of talk time, a mobile number good for a year, and data transfers. Getting the card and slipping it into an unlocked iPhone 6 took just a few minutes at a store run by Etecsa, the state phone carrier, in the leafy Miramar neighborhood. (Lines can be longer in the center of Old Havana, and the transaction would be difficult for someone who doesn't speak Spanish.) Extra talk time and data can be purchased from convenience stores, bakeries, and street vendors.
However, the best strategy is to do as the locals do and use the public Wi-Fi. I paid 7 CUC for an hour at the Hotel Nacional, but unless you’re staying there, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s the slowest network I found, presumably due to the large number of people getting online there.
Most hotels use a shared Wi-Fi system called Nauta, which you can access after getting a code from a scratch card and entering it into your phone, tablet, or computer. It costs anywhere from 2 or 3 CUC for an hour to 10 CUC for five hours. And if you buy a card with more time than you can use in one session, you need to log out and then reenter the 12-digit code and a separate 12-digit password each time you want to go back online; otherwise, your time will keep ticking away. The locals typically write e-mails offline and send them in batches to conserve their Web time for making Skype calls to relatives abroad.
Etecsa's hotspots aren't cheap by local standards: An hour of surfing costs about 10 percent of the official average monthly salary. And with only a few dozen of them on the entire island, they're far from adequate for a country of 11 million people. But their scarcity makes them fairly easy to find: When you need a signal, just look for crowds of locals lingering outside hotels.