Hotspot parks, access cards, and 3G: what it’s like to use the internet in Cuba

Danielle Adams
4 min readJul 14, 2019

The recent news about Cuba has me wondering if I’ll ever be able to visit again. I went for the first time a little over 2 months ago — I came back and told everyone it was one of the most magical places I had ever been. Difficulties getting internet access was a mild inconvenience and kind of a perk of traveling there (although no-internet would be a nightmare for some, understandably). Despite the difficulties, it wasn’t impossible, and it proved to be an interesting experience.

Cuba is about 300 miles from Miami (where I’m from), and even though it was so close in distance, it always felt like a million miles away. Now that I’ve visited, I’m surprised at how similar it is to Miami. There’s a new generation of Cubans that live there now that are, in many ways, like American Millenials— and like American Millenials, they are attached to their smartphones.

Cubans use their phones the same way Americans do: they message on WhatsApp, post to Instagram, watch videos, make phone calls, and search the internet on mobile browsers. The catch is that most of the internet access in the country is isolated to public hotspots. When I spoke to a Cuban resident, he explained what internet usage is like there. Want to have a private conversation with a significant other? Too bad — hotspots make park areas and street corners look like an event is going on, except everyone is looking down at their phones. Need to download something? Make sure it doesn’t take more than an hour — the internet usage is purchased by the time passed, not by the data used.

public hotspot park in Havana
public hotspot parks in the morning: at night, this place will get PACKED

Additionally, you’re not able to connect to WiFi and “voila!”. It’s a little more involved. First, you have to buy a government-provided, one-time use card with 2 long codes on it. Many tourists buy several at a time, and they last for 1 hour each. The codes on the card are hidden by a scratch-off, so you’ll have to remove the silver covering with a coin or knife. Once you’ve scratched off (and assuming you haven’t scratched right through the code because the cards are so thin), you’re ready to input. You need to navigate to an IP address via a browser that corresponds to the government-provided login. Once the codes are inputted, a countdown page will appear, and your device is granted 1 hour of internet…

Danielle Adams

Software Engineer at AWS. Open source developer, New Yorker, TBD.