Using Exceptions to Navigate the 5-Month Rule

Did you know that there are some exceptions to the 5-month rule for F-1 and M-1 visa holders? The 5-month rule dictates that students can take a temporary leave of absence from their studies and return to their home country without losing student visa status as long as they are back within a 5-month period. Read on to learn about a few key exceptions to the rule and the situations they apply to!

Study Abroad

The most common exception to the 5-month rule is when a student chooses to pursue a study abroad program. Students on F-1 or M-1 visas can pursue study abroad opportunities if they are compliant with the following requirements:

    • The student continues to pursue a full course of study while abroad;
    • The student is physically present at the college or university they are studying at while abroad;
    • The program is authorized and considered to be part of the student’s U.S. degree program.

If you are interested in pursuing study abroad while on a student visa, it is important to consult with both your immigration attorney and your university. You don’t want to miss any steps in the process of registering for your study abroad program that could threaten your visa status.

Travel to Other North American Countries or Islands Adjacent to the U.S.

Although your visa will expire if you travel beyond the expiration date, you can go through a process called automatic visa revalidation if you are returning from a visit of less than 30 days to Canada, Mexico, or an island deemed “adjacent” to the U.S. To see which islands qualify, visit this official website for a complete list. If you would like to stop in Canada, Mexico, or an adjacent island for 30 days or less and when your visa is about to expire, be sure to have a valid Form I-20 and a valid unexpired Form I-94. If you have these documents, you will be able to undergo automatic visa revalidation.

U.S. Territories

Because U.S. territories are technically part of the United States, you can return to the mainland U.S. even if your visa has expired if you have a valid Form I-20 and valid unexpired Form I-94. It’s important to keep in mind that this exception does not apply if your travel plans include entry into any other country en route to these territories. You will also want to make sure that your SEVIS record has not been terminated, indicating that you are out of status.


Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing instances of remote instruction, there are some exceptions to the 5-month rule that F-1 and M-1 visa holders are entitled to. If student visa holders are required to study online, they are allowed to continue their academics either inside or outside the U.S. while retaining student visa status. It is important to note the following conditions must be met for students to keep student visa status while studying remote:

    • Update address record with school and immigration office to indicate where you will be located for remote learning;
    • Be enrolled in a full semester of coursework; and
    • Are required to study online.

If the student visa holder would like to take time away from being an active student or is not satisfied with the online format, they can request a temporary leave of absence within the parameters of the 5-month rule. It is important to remember that the exception only applies to students continuing with a full academic load.

Partner with a lawyer

If you would like to explore the exceptions to the 5-month rule further and want to understand what you need to do to take advantage of them, please contact us for an assessment. It is important to consult with a qualified immigration attorney before traveling on an exception to the 5-month rule to ensure that you complete all required steps in documentation of your travels.


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