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On the official government site, it is stated that a student's SEVIS record will be terminated if he/she "spent more than five months outside of the United States during an absence from school".

Does a termination of my SEVIS record imply that my F1 visa will become invalid as well? Also, the term "5 month" is ambiguous. First, does the "5 month" period refer to a consecutive 5 month outside of the US? If so, is there anything preventing me from just entering and exiting the US once every 5 month just to maintain my F1 status. Second, what does "absence from school" mean? If I'm a grad student not taking any course and just doing research outside of US, but still formally enrolled in the US university under "research units", am I considered "absent from school" for legal purposes?

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This rule about 5 months and absence from school has some gray areas which depend on your school's interpretation of the rule. Provided that your research units are indeed necessary and sufficient to make normal progress toward your degree, you should not be considered "absent from school" and you should be able to maintain F-1 status despite being out of the US for over 5 months. If in doubt, you should check with your Designated School Official (DSO) to make sure your plan is ok based on their interpretation. It would also be wise to carry evidence of your continuous student status such as transcript and confirmation of your research units.

If you do take a break from your degree, your DSO should terminate your SEVIS record for Authorized Early Withdrawal. In this case you would indeed have to get a new I-20 and new F-1 visa if you wished to return to F-1 status later. This could also affect your eligibility for OPT since you have to be enrolled full time for 1 academic year immediately preceding OPT.

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  • Thanks for the answer. In the worst case where I'm considered "absent from school", is it possible for me to just return and exit the US once every 5 months to maintain the F1 status, or is there some other rules preventing me from gaming the system like this.
    – PeaBrane
    Dec 16 '20 at 0:32
  • @PeaBrane In general, maintaining F-1 status depends on being enrolled full time and making normal academic progress, which should imply that you're not absent. So it's hard to construct a scenario where the 5 months is the limiting factor. Again it's worth asking your DSO if in doubt.
    – krubo
    Dec 16 '20 at 1:36

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