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Are Cuban Cigars Legal in the US?

Holt's Staff Cigar's picture

Holt's Staff

Cuban cigars have long enjoyed a historic reputation for their complex, earthy flavor and with it, an insatiable demand, largely because you can’t get them in the U.S. Even the non-cigar-consuming public often thinks “Cuban” at the mention of cigars.

Decades ago, an embargo prevented Americans from bringing home Cuban cigars – even if they were purchased in countries other than Cuba. How is it possible to get your hands around the band of an authentic Bolivar or Cohiba from Cuba if they’re illegal?

Pump the brakes, because that long-standing myth that Cuban cigars are illegal in the U.S. isn’t entirely correct. While you won’t see Cuban cigars for sale at your local smokeshop (at least not legally), aspects of the long-standing embargo were lifted in 2014 and you can safely (and legally) smoke a Cuban cigar in the United States, as well as bring them into the country from abroad when you’re traveling, so long as you follow a few key guidelines.

Are Cuban Cigars Legal in the US Now?

Things have changed in the past few years. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama lifted the cigar ban that prohibited American travelers from bringing Cubans back with them from their journeys. Although the embargo was lifted, there originally were limits to the quantity of items like cigars and rum that could legally be declared when bringing them back into the U.S.

The amount of cigars you can return with have changed since the embargo’s initial rollback. The limits are subject to further fluctuations depending on the ultimate stance the Trump administration follows with other policy makers, however, Cuban cigars are presently not considered the illegal contraband they once were. Before you start filling up your duffel bag, we recommend checking the U.S. Customs site for up-to-date guidelines on what is officially allowed, just to be safe.

We’ll talk about the embargo and other changes to Cuban cigar laws, but let’s rewind to when the cigar ban was first put into place.

1962: The Cuban Cigar Embargo

If you’re looking to point a finger at someone for the long embargo on Cuban cigars, it was President (and ironically enough, cigar aficionado) John F. Kennedy.

When the Cuban Missile Crisis came to a rolling boil and tense relations between Cuba and the U.S. emerged, President Kennedy imposed harsh restrictions on travel between the two countries. He also placed severe restrictions on trade and the exchange of goods and products between the two nations. 

In 1962, JFK signed the Cuban cigar law, but right before it was firmly in effect, he dispatched his aide Pierre Salinger to scour all corners of Washington, D.C. to set aside a stash of nearly 1,200 Cuban cigars. (Yes. Really.)

John F. Kennedy wasn’t the only POTUS that loved to smoke and Cuban cigars were especially prized during that time period. Yet, for being known as a people’s president, JFK really set a double standard between the Office of the President and the people on this one.

2014: Obama Lifts the Embargo

Fast forward nearly 50 years, and in 2014, President Barack Obama lifted the limit on the embargo to allow travelers from the U.S. to bring back Cuban cigars and rum. After all, if Cuban cigars were the #1 most-coveted export for their pedigree, then Cuban rum was a close second.

Despite the lifting of the cigar ban, there was still a catch … or two, initially. The price of the cigars (and rum) being imported had to be worth no more than $100, and they had to be for personal use only. That’s right, no bringing any Cuban tobacco or alcohol back with the hopes of trying to turn a profit. (And a sad trombone sounds a low wail in the background.)

But whether you’re a Cohiba or a Montecristo fan, you no longer have to worry about upholding your amateur smuggler status by stashing boxes and bundles in your luggage, hoping that TSA won’t find them. You can now carry them on your flight home, loudly and proudly, so long as the total worth doesn’t exceed any limits enforced by U.S. Customs and you’re only consuming them for personal use.

Customs Penalties

Always consult with the rules and regulations on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection site for confirmation. Customs penalties can be stiff, but more problematic, the rules are seemingly in a state of fluctuation. President Trump has again tightened up restrictions with Cuba in recent months and his stance shows no signs of receding.

The Forbidden Fruit Effect

Now that aspects of the Cuban cigar embargo have been lifted, will what was once considered a forbidden fruit lose some of its allure? Most cigar aficionados don’t seem to think that the removal of the mystery and joy of smuggling will chip away at the Cuban cigar’s appeal.

The real question is whether or not Cuban cigars will measure up against the prestige achieved by a number of prominent cigar-makers in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and other nations – many of whom fled, with or after their ancestors, to the U.S. and other Central and South American countries. With them, they also took generations of tobacco-growing expertise and premium cigar-making knowledge and effectively transplanted it in other regions that have long enjoyed a prosperous presence in the U.S. market due to superior quality and unwavering consistency. The highest-rated Cuban cigars in Cigar Aficionado, for example, share the spotlight with a number of iconic brands that have been available in the U.S. market for decades, including Arturo Fuente, Ashton, Padron, and more.

Additionally, hurricanes and treacherous weather events have negatively impacted the tobacco growing seasons in Cuba in recent years. Despite the challenges, Cuba remains the birthplace of established cigar-making traditions that are proudly continued today. A great cigar is a great cigar regardless of where it’s made. Dispel your curiosity over Cubans and decide for yourself if they measure up to your expectations the next time you have the chance to pick them up abroad. Don’t think twice about bringing home some cigars, and while you’re at it, a little rum to wash them down.


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