COVID-19 Webinar FAQs: 5 Month Rule

UPDATE to previous advice: SEVP has announced that the 5 month rule, which was previously explained in the OIS webinar and following FAQ's, will not be enforced for the duration of time that COVID-19 travel restrictions are in place AND the F-1 student remains in Active academic status at their institution. Therefore, if you left the U.S. during the Spring 2020 semester and you remained enrolled on a full-time basis throughout the term, you may re-enter the U.S. on your current I-20, even if your absence is longer than 5 months.

COVID-19 Exception 5 Month Rule

For what period of time does the COVID-exception to the 5 month rule cover?

At the present time, we know that this exception will apply to travel from the middle of the Spring 2020 semester until at least the Fall 2020 semester. It is our expectation that if global travel continues to be limited due to COVID-19, this exception will also continue.

How can I take advantage of the COVID-exception to the 5 month rule?

If you are currently outside the U.S. and you are unable to return to the U.S. you MUST enroll full-time at Pitt during the Fall 2020 semester so that you can use your current I-20 when you are able to re-enter the country.

If I decide not to return to Pitt until January 2021, can I still use my current I-20?

Assuming that COVID-related travel and closure restrictions remain in place AND you remain an active Pitt student through the Fall 2020 semester, you should be able to use your current I-20 to enter in January 2021. You may NOT use your current I-20 if you decide to take an academic break during the Fall 2020 semester or if COVID-related restrictions are no longer in place during the fall semester.


(Note: These FAQs are valid for any period of time NOT covered by the current COVID-19 exception to the rule.)

What is the 5 month rule? 

This rule says that if you are out of the country for longer than five months, with a few limited exceptions, you will need a new I-20 when you attempt to re-enter the U.S.  This will not only necessitate a new SEVIS fee and a completely new SEVIS record, but it may also have implications for OPT and CPT requests.  

When does the 5 month rule begin?

As soon as you leave the country. If you leave the country on March 15th, you will need to return no later than August 15th.  And keep in mind that we don’t know what travel bans may or may not be in place at that time. 

You say that the 5 month rule may have implications for CPT and OPT.  What are they? 

In most circumstances, OPT and CPT require that you are in status for one full academic year before you participate in CPT/OPT.  If you have to enter the country on a new I-20, that clock starts again.  If you do not plan to participate in CPT or OPT for at least a year after you would re-enter, then you shouldn’t have any problems. But if you would be returning to classes with only one semester before graduation, you would jeopardize your chance at getting OPT.  If you have specific questions about this please talk with your immigration specialist.

If I decide to take a gap semester and get a new I-20, will that affect my F-1 status? 

If you take a semester off, and you will be returning to the States more than 5 months after you left, you will need a new I-20 and a new SEVIS record.  This may affect OPT and CPT, in that you typically have to be in school for two consecutive termsbefore you can receive these benefits and with a new I-20, that time frame re-starts.  But other than re-starting the SEVIS clock, your F-1 record would not be affected and you should feel free to take that gap semester if that is what makes most sense for your situation. 

Will I lose my scholarship if I leave the country and cannot return next fall? 

This is not a question that OIS can answer.  Each scholarship is different and you will need to check with your program or financial aid to check on what the rules are for your particular scholarship. 

If I leave and am not able to return in 5 months, how do I get a new I-20? How shall we notify OIS if we plan to stay outside the U.S. for more than 5 months? 

OIS will continue to be available to you for all your immigration needs. If you need a new I-20, contact your immigration specialist within plenty of time before you plan to travel. If your visa is still valid, we recommend that you contact us no later than one month before you are traveling for your new I-20. If you will need a new visa then you should give us at least 3 months notice so you have time to schedule your visa appointment prior to traveling.  

Students submit their requests for a new I-20 after an absence of more than 5 months via the “Return to Pitt from Leave” e-form group in the “Admission to Orientation” tab of My OIS. Students need to upload: 

  • A letter from their academic advisor, confirming their ability to register in classes in the next semester, along with a confirmation of the student’s estimated graduation date
  • New financial documents to prove to Pitt and the government that you have the ability to pay your remaining education.  
  • If I get a new I-20, will I also need a new visa?  No. If your current visa is still valid, you can use it with the new I-20 to re-enter. The SEVIS ID numbers will be different, but you can use the same F-1 visa stamp. 

If we stay outside the U.S. for less than 5 months, is our current I-20 still valid? Will that have any effect on OPT?

Yes, if you are gone from the U.S. for fewer than 5 months you can use your current I-20 to re-enter and there will be no impact on your OPT.