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When you study in the United States on an F-1 Student Visa, there might be an instance where you take a leave of absence from your studies for reasons including personal finances, medical issues, internships in your country of origin, the COVID-19 pandemic, or other personal circumstances. If you are considering taking a leave, it is important to understand the “5-month rule” to maintain your student visa status. Read on to learn more about this rule and how to use it properly to comply with immigration law!

Overview of the 5-month Rule

The five-month rule refers to the termination of your record in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) due to you being away from classes or not in status for five months. Therefore, the rule allows F-1 Visa holders to retain their visa status if they take a leave of 5 months or less from their standard classes and student status. If you file the correct information about your leave on time and with the correct office, you will not need to reapply for F-1 Visa status to re-enter the United States, nor will you need to re-file your Form I-20 or DS-2019 if you return before the expiration dates on these documents.

What happens if you stay out of the United States for longer than 5 months?

If you stay out of the United States for more than 5 months, your SEVIS record will be terminated, and you will need to obtain a new Form I-20 and pay the I-901 SEVIS fee again. However, you will not have to apply for a new visa if your original visa is still valid, even if you stay longer than 5 months on your authorized trip outside of the U.S. The 5-month rule is designed to help students avoid having their SEVIS record terminated; it removes the burden of filing a new I-20 and paying the fee over again for a leave of absence that is short.

COVID-19 Pandemic Updates to the Rule

As many academic institutions switched to remote and/or hybrid options for the COVID-19 pandemic, some key updates came about for F-1 Visa holders and taking a leave of absence.

If students are required to study online, they can continue their studies either inside or outside the United States and will need to update their address. Because of the pandemic restriction, students can still maintain their F-1 status while studying remotely from their home country if they are enrolled in a full semester of coursework. They will not be subject to the 5-month rule unless they take time away from being an active student. If students are not satisfied with the fully online structure of their university program, they can request a temporary leave of absence and still retain their visa status. A semester-long leave of absence will likely allow the student to reap the benefits of the 5-month rule.

How to Use the 5-Month Rule to Travel

To file for a leave of absence, first, make sure that your F-1 Visa and your I-20/DS-2019 forms are valid through the time when you intend to re-enter the United States. Then complete a Travel Signature Request Form with your university to receive a travel signature on your forms, which will be valid for up to one year, and demonstrate authorization from the university. Finally, you must carry the following documents with you when you travel:

  • University transcript;
  • Confirmation of your enrollment;
  • Financial documentation that demonstrates how you intend to finance your studies; and
  • Additional proof of identity, including government ID, your passport, your birth certificate, etc.

If you complete all these steps, you can continue your F-1 Visa without having to re-submit any forms or fees. If you would like to learn more about taking a leave of absence on an F-1 Visa, please contact us for an appointment. We are happy to help you maintain your student visa and avoid unnecessary hurdles to do so.

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