Grrrr: I Must Be On Some Sort Of A Government Watchlist

For the most part, my airport experience is easier than ever before. Between TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry, the two most frustrating aspects of the airport experience — security and immigration — are a breeze.

Well, at least that’s the case most of the time. If you’re a frequent flyer you’ve no doubt at some point received an “SSSS” on your boarding pass. That stands for “secondary security screening selection.” As the name suggests, when you see that on your boarding pass, it means you’re subjected to additional security screening.

SSSS

This has actually become a pretty intense process in the U.S. Your bags are screened as usual, then you have to go through the metal detector, then you have to go through the body scanner, then you get a full body pat down, and then they search every inch of your belongings.

Most frequent flyers have probably received an “SSSS” on their boarding pass at some point, as there’s some level of randomness to it. With my 400,000+ miles per year of flying, I’d say I get it an average of five or so times per year, perhaps every couple of months.

However, I’ve been getting selected for additional screening more often lately. More specifically, my past three itineraries in a row have been selected for additional screening. All three itineraries have been on different airlines.

So I suppose there’s a chance that this is truly “random,” and I’m just having very bad luck. However, to me it seems much more likely that I’m on some sort of a list, which is causing the additional screening. If that’s the case, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner, given how strange my travel patterns must look.

Has anyone else found themselves in a similar situation? Is there anything that can be done to resolve it? Or am I just having a really bad luck streak?

Comments

  1. Time for a redress number?

    Although you’d think a known traveler number would mean you wouldn’t need one.

    Are you buying last minute, one-way tickets, or another “suspicious” buying process?

  2. Maybe cuz you’ve been leaving and entering the country for so many times and you only leave for a few days every time.

  3. I’m sure it has to do with some of the countries you fly to. There are only a small number of US passport holders traveling to some of these countries that you’re traveling to/from.

    That being said, I’m sure it’s very frustrating. Especially when the additional screening cancels out the convenience of TSA Pre or Global Entry.

  4. Happened to me about 3 years ago after traveling to IST. I was getting SSSS every trip after, probably like five successive flights. I applied for a Redress number and input that into all my future reservations and haven’t had the issue since.

  5. That’s somewhat contradictory to what I’ve suspected, to wit, that you were in fact a CIA agent. Your blog gives you excellent cover and is just the kind of front that the CIA often seeks when recruiting agents. It would also explain your reticence to express political views, your neutrality during the Presidential election and some of the countries you have visited in the past year.

  6. I had SSSS for every single flight for over a year. I asked TSA multiple times why I was always “randomly” selected. I had one agent tell me that I had an “usual travel history” and that’s what flagged me (he specifically said it was travel to Turkey and Pakistan). My husband wasn’t a US citizen at the time and was never stopped, but the first flight after he became a citizen he was flagged too. At JFK, TSA joked with us and said they had never seen a husband and wife both “randomly” selected before. We both got Global Entry last November and haven’t had SSSS since… although hearing that you are flagged makes me worry about our next trip!

  7. I’ve had it on every one of my last several tickets to the US. It was rare before and I do not get it on domestic tickets, just my one-way tickets to the US.

  8. @Stuart

    I used to think the same thing! Between Lucky, TPG, and some of the other younger bloggers, I’ve always imagined at least one of them is a CIA agent.

  9. As a couple of others have suggested, I suspect your recent trip to the Middle East is what set it off. I’ve seen several reports that frequent travelers have run into a couple months of extra scrutiny after ME trips in the past year or so.

  10. Yes, but TPG has the courage and intelligence to weigh in on behalf of human rights, including lgbt rights, and was an active supporter of Hillary Clinton. That leaves Ben.

  11. Don’t be paranoid. This is selected randomly to a degree but on a risk based approach. You are not special.

  12. And old travel companion of mine, got the SSSS we where travelling CPH – KEF – JFK with Icelandair and after the passport check in KEF there where a small desk where the checked your name, i saw my companions name on it and waited for him, and he got the extra check in a closed room.
    In JFK no other issue beside that he had made a mistake on his ESTA, so i guess that’s why he got the SSSS or maybe because of his Nigerian surname – but last year also travelling domestic in US no extra cavity search for him even though he still has that Nigerian surname.

    But every time i have been to the US, TSA have open one of my suitcases so i always leave the used undies on top, just to represent my self 🙂

  13. I think it was the recent trips to Egypt, Jordan and Indonesia. It will last 3-5 trips and then probably go away.

  14. Call TPG, he knows how to get off of the list. I think he called his Congressman or something. Good luck!

  15. @Stuart Falk I am also a travel blogger, but I have a blanket policy of never discussing anything even remotely political in my posts, even though I personally have very strong feelings/leanings when it comes to politics. Why? To avoid the inevitable s*itstorm of trolling in the comments and on Twitter when I offend one side’s sensibilities. I can guarantee you my real life day job is far, far more boring than that of a CIA agent, despite my writing neutrality!

  16. the SSSS will generate if you are 1. on a one way ticket and 2. If you ;forgot; to add your FFPN to the itinerary.

  17. If you travel to/from those countries on a separate ticket than your departure/return from/to the US, and on a foreign airline, how would the US ever know you visited those countries?

  18. I have had received these awful four Ss in each flight I took for about 2 years, on both revenue and award tickets. I don’t know the exact reason for it. Many times, I wasn’t even able to check-in to the flights or even select seats before or during check-in. By the way, it always made me laugh how the TSA/CATSA agent always says: “You have been RANDOMLY selected for a more thorough security check”.
    Anyway, I realised something interesting. I used (with permission, of course) my mom’s miles to book an award one-way. I was in a rush and forgot to include my AAdvantage number. Although I wouldn’t receive any miles for the trip, I like having all my trips recorded in my account. I went to check in, and voila – I no SSSS! I tried not providing my SkyMiles and other FF numbers, and never got the SSSS wothout them! Ever since, whenever it’s a flight that I don’t count on an upgrade, I just don’t include my FF number – and I never get the SSSS. It sucks, because when it’s a paid ticket, I have to apply to have the miles afterwards and go through the forms and wait for the miles to be deposited, but at least I don’t need to go through the process of pat down and them going through my bags.

  19. Contact your congressman. Oh wait, would you even be considered a U.S. resident?
    Hmm, try it anyways I guess.

  20. I always receive 4S on my inbound flights to US. No matter where I am flying from, or which airline it is. outbound and domestic travels never trigger that.

  21. Yep, everytime i go through immigration in the US, i get asked the exact same questions: why i was a foreign exchange student (in 2006), where did I stay, when, why…….

  22. It’s because of Ben’s declaration of love for and support of Russia.

    Don’t worry, after today’s inauguration, the SSSS will magically disappear.

  23. Lucky,

    are you being sent to CBP secondary or is it just TSA extra screening? If you are constantly referred to CBP for secondary, then you need to reach out to DHS. If its just TSA, then it is your one way travel and multiple bookings.

  24. I have occasionally gotten SSSS on tickets originating outside the US, but it seems that either it doesn’t mean anything outside the US or the airports where I was departing from just didn’t care, because everything proceeded as usual. So that is the really lucky way to do it.

    How do they actually execute the SSSS in the US these days? Does the person checking your ID bring you over and hand you off to someone or something? Otherwise you’d just get lost in the line of other people.

  25. I have said this before and I will say it again:

    I have never heard of a gay terrorist before. If you are selected for extra screening just give a looooooong sloppy kiss to ford in front of them and they will let you in.

  26. Yes, you are on a watchlist, but not a terrorist watchlist. You are on what is called a “Rules-Based Watchlist”. Rules Based Watchlists are based on travel patterns (i.e. countries recently visited, especially on one-way itineraries), age (i.e. mostly teenage-to-middle-aged folks) and possibly gender (i.e. males). Seems like you might fit the bill. IST and BEY are known to be triggers, but there may be others. The criteria are of course SSI. It is not based on identity or suspicion like the TSDB; TSA considers it a way to mitigate “unknown threats” and implemented it in response to the underwear bomber. Global Entry does not seem to help people on Rules Based Watchlists. DHS TRIP might help. For more information or documentation, feel free to email me.

  27. I had this for the first time on my most recent trip from JFK-YVR, although the secondary screening wasn’t unbearable. I have a trip coming up with multiple segments on separate tickets to Jakarta and wouldn’t be surprised if I got ‘randomly selected’ somewhere along the way, most likely when I connect through Chicago on the way home.

  28. I’ve gotten SSSS a couple of years ago (I was 16) flying a paid-ticket out of Karachi. Had a stopover in Hong Kong, and surprisingly got SSSS on my later flight to US (I guess it makes sense). Now I have global entry and haven’t had an issue yet (tho also haven’t been to Pakistan since)

  29. Of course you’re on a list. You just flew all over the Middle East in a highly unusual manner. The authorities would be negligent if they didn’t subject you to additional screening.

  30. Use your Deutscher Resiepass! I have 3 ctiz and use them for ease of entry (no long lines or visa fees etc)
    I have never had an SSSS and I travel 200k a year.

  31. I received SSSS returning from my last trip to Jordan (summer 2015) as well. Was questioned by a US consulate official in FRA on my layover there and again in a secondary CBP interview in a back room at EWR upon arrival. Both the consulate and CBP officials knew details about me and family members.

  32. I received the dreaded ssss in September on a trip from Australia to NYC. I didn’t notice until a nice “immigration” person in Sydney pointed it out to me in and sure enuf it was on all my connecting boarding passes. She said it was random but at the time I felt it was the airline person who checked me in at Canberra who had a hand in it but maybe not.

    It was only when I got to to LAX where it became really unpleasant and humiliating. I’d been flying for 20 hours at that point so feeling a bit fragile and the Officer was clearly out to make it a difficult time and make me feel more than uncomfortable which he did. Body searches and Everything was gone through from pocketbook, wallet, bags the lot. Ultimately Missed my connecting flight to NYC.

    I have flown since of course but not yet into the US. It hasn’t appeared again and I have flown into several European, South Pacific and Asian countries and nothing but am nervous about my next US flight.

  33. Congressman and Senators were no help. I don’t get the SSSS, but get the “random” beep after the TSA pre check metal detector about 1/3 flights. The patient the last two times only been from twisted down. Our Congressman – who we know well as my husband was County Republican party chair a few years ago – answered, but turned the issue over to staff who sent a copy and paste TSA page.
    Only one Senator’s office staffer responded at all – but that was because two in the Communications office thought I was making a threat: My email signature mentions a mustard seed – so might I have been writing about mustard gas?!? But don’t worry, the woman promised me she wouldn’treport me to the FBI without talking to me first.
    Feel safer?

  34. I am in similar boat. Ever since I visited Egypt, I started to receive ‘SSSS’ after 9-11. And this happened 100% of the time I fly for for over ten years now. I can not check in via Kiosk, and it always says ‘see gate agent’ and when the agent print out the ticket, it shows ‘SSSS’ and going through security is a tedious process. I also suspect I am on some sort of list.

    However, ever since I got my Global Entry last year, this ‘SSSS’ situation seems to be much better. I only goes to special screening occasionally now. So to me, paying for Global entry is definitely worth it.

  35. There are certain countries that will trigger that dreaded SSSS. I had it for 4 months straight as I did a few trips to Pakistan. I didn’t get the SSSS as I stopped making those trips. I’m sure some of the countries you’ve visited trigger that.

    I got interviewed for 40 mins, coming into LAX and I have GE. It’s not a pleasant experience.

  36. I used to get 4S depending on how the airline’s system managed my middle name. If my first and middle name were joined together on my boarding pass, it would always be accompanied by a 4S. I’ve stopped entering my middle name onto bookings and haven’t had it happen a single time since.

    My guess is that the way that airline’s system handled my middle name created the appearance of an inconsistency in documentation.

  37. Well, you’re an out gay man, so if you weren’t on a government watch list yesterday, you’re certainly on one as of 12 noon Eastern time today!

  38. Same story and am Global Entry. Received SSSS last four flights in a row from DXB to JFK/LAX over past three months on EK. Nothing when I fly LH, UAL, etc.

  39. Lucky, this happened to the tpg guy after going somewhere in the middle east. I think he wrote a blog on how to get off of it.

  40. I’m surprised, Lucky, that you didn’t know to expect this after flying to Jordan. It’s just what happens. Happened to me last month, but I flew to MEX a week later and the SSSS was gone, so it’s not a long-term thing.

  41. What do you want to happen ?

    Maybe if you post a review of the government office lounge and how they greet you and a descriptive of the seats and don’t forget to take pictures of the water fountain and snack machine and office coffee pot to use it in a review.
    Do not overlook your customary review of the toilets too.

    You have no real complaints is what it all boils down to.

  42. @Stuart – I think an international gay escort makes more sense.

    His early trip reports always had a different unnamed person in them.

  43. Had it as well a few years ago so I applied for the Redress number
    Unfortunately it takes very long before getting one, almost one year! 🙁

  44. Have global entry known travellers number and also redness number. Flying back and forth between US and Canada, nothing exotic. Getting SSSS once a while. Fun seeing your belongings spread out on TSA table in front of everyone to see.

  45. Welcome to the club 🙂 It was pretty annoying at the beginning for me especially when they say the word you have been randomly selected for extra screening! Later it became a joke and i just tend to tease them as i start saying well i have SSSS so i know beforehand that i have been selected and they don’t like it when you spell it. The best part is when they took out the open and put on your laptop procedure, and i kept on doing it as my laptop needs like 3-4 minutes to turn on and they go like we don’t need you to turn it on and i go oh the rules have changed and then stay on their little desk for those minutes and getting anxious as they have other people queuing and i love it.
    Have been travelling to the USA since 2012 on average of 6 flights per year to different airports mostly JFK and most of those flights a year were in business some first and some premium economy and always have the SSSS never once i didn’t have it.

  46. I get it every time I enter the country no matter where I come in from. Driving or flying with my wife and 6 month old daughter who is now 3 dragged in trip back from Toronto 2x car searched. Missed a few flights because of it. Born in America worked same place for 30 years. Worked for NASA and Federal reserve bank. Plenty of security checks and background checks to work those jobs. I also got the first time I ever flew out of the country. Tried redress didn’t help at all. I got TSA pre-check tried for global entry have to hire a lawyer to get it. Wife got it she isn’t a natural citizen. I am. GO figure I think it’s an excuse for CBP to justify there jobs. What better things do they have to do than harass upstanding citizens who love adventure and travel to exotic locations. I’d call them something else. Even had several agents shaking their head why are you here I said you tell me? Complete BS and really sick of it. I have another trip planned in 2 months. Had to leave 5 hour window on the return flight so we don’t miss it. Damn SS I really don’t feel like paying a lawyer at this time to clear it up. They drag me in and make the wife and daughter wait for me. I am on someone’s S**T list.

  47. I am a US citizen that lives in Europe for the last 3 years. I get SSSS flagged literally every single time I come back to the USA now. It has been 6 of 6 times in last 3 years. TSA agents always say different reasons as to why, but I wish I could fix it since I fly a lot. One theory is because my passport is a “replacement” for a lost one. That seems a very trivial reason to flag someone literally every time….

  48. There was a period where every time I entered the US I was almost always getting SSSS and when I didn’t I was still getting secondary screening.

    After it happening about 10 times in a row I asked one of the officers why. He said I was flagged in the system because I come to the US so much (I’m on an Aussie passport living in Europe).

    I asked him if there was a way to stop this because I was coming for business every time and clearly had no bad intentions. He said to me that he would put a note in the system. I figured sure you will… as if it’s that easy, but that was over 3 years ago and I haven’t had SSSS or any other secondary screening since and I’m still coming to the US 15+ times a year.

    Can’t thank that guy enough, knock on wood it stays that way.

  49. In September of 2015 I went to Turkey, after that trip, I received the SSSS on every flight I flew on United for 6 months, EVERY flight. I only fly United and Star Alliance code share flights bought through United and fairly random and 90% international for business, but I was only SSSS when departing a US airport. After one frustrating morning in San Diego fearing I would miss my flight while waiting for a TSA supervisor to sign off on my SSSS, I asked what I could do. I was told that it was possible that I was on some such list but TSA wouldn’t know who put me there or why and that only several agencies have the ability to add and remove, CBP, FBI, CIA…. I was given a phone number to who I don’t recall, I never followed up, I just endured, after 6 months it just stopped happening. In the 18 months since, I was SSSS only once on Swiss in Zurich. And I’ve traveled to Turkey during that time.

  50. Happened to me for five flights after traveling to IST in 2014. It went away on its own. Same for my wife.

  51. I lived in Saudi for 6 years (2001-2007), every time I travelled back to the US and then had domestic flights I had SSSS, it became a joke. I asked once at the airport and was told it was because my tickets were all issued in Saudi, not sure how accurate that was.

  52. I get it all the time too. Some officer told me my last name was on a watch list. Looks likes I will need Global Entry. I got it this time on my trip to Prague from my flight back home from Frankfurt to Chicago.

  53. I don’t think it’s specifically the countries Ben has been to. I’ve been to Russia, China, Indonesia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Malaysia all in the past two years and I’ve only got the SSSS twice and both times they were on one way flights that I booked within a few hours of the flight.

  54. Got my first SSSS flying from Asia to USA this week. I fly to southeast Asian countries (Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Singapore) 4-5 times a year, have global entry, tsa precheck, apec travel card, mostly upgraded paid tickets. No criminal history, clear drivers license, and decent credit. Not to mention, I also never landed in and “terrorist” countries, except a transit in DXB but that’s far from it. How I landed on this “list” is beyond me and to me total stupidity to have classified me as risky. What a waste of govt resources.

  55. D.Whit: I think that much of the overkill in Ben’s photographs may be to establish documentation so that, as a travel blogger, his travel expenses are tax deductible as business expenses. It’s not a scam as it’s perfectly legal.

  56. May be there will be an executive order from the new president to stop this insane stupidity and put in some logic. Previous president was touted transparency in his administration. If one of you you can tell me how this SSSS has transparency (or any logic) i may start watching CNN again.

  57. If you get the SSSSs on the bottom of your boarding pass then you get additional screening.
    It’s totally random and muslims always get pissed if they are selected lol. They have had this since 9/11.

  58. The process can be a bit of a joke if you are traveling with someone else.

    The last time I got the SSSS designation (I have Global Entry) I was leaving Jamaica. When had a problem getting the boarding pass and at the counter I was told I was ‘randomly selected’.

    Fortunately had on light hiking shorts and hiking belt (no metal) and a t-shirt under by overshirt. I had my partner pull out some sandals and I kicked off my shoes and slyly gave my travel partner all of my belongings, so all I had was my passport and boarding pass. Security was quick as there was nothing to really pat down and no belongings to check. The security people were quite disappointed it seems as all they could do was a hand swap and another ‘vigorous’ pat down of a tight (too much buffet over the week) t-shirt and the thin beach sandals.

    It took me less time to go through this intensive procedure than my poor partner who had an extra bag to have to lug through normal security. 🙂 Getting them into the lounge via my Priority Pass made it up to them.

  59. Jan 31 in Pittsburgh, 95% of the people in TSA precheck were randomly selected for the full body scan – the metal detector randomly selected everyone. And I got an additional pat down too.

    Coming through Dallas today, randomly selected again for a hand swab.

    My sister in law had similar experience in cleveland and D.C.

  60. I already get as well some times the SSSS.

    Im 22, male, +40k miles a year, European passport

    Flying from/via/to:
    AMS, DUS, CGN, ZRH, MIA, HOU, YYZ, MEX, FRA, MAD

    I think its totally random.

  61. It’s almost certainly booking flights as one way’s and awards, and mixing in over land segments or segments on non US carriers. It’s happened to me before, and then as soon as I flew a few round trips it was back to normal.

  62. I have Global Entry for a couple years. Then started getting 4S on 3 flights in row (home from Brazil, and to/from Mexico). Thoughts on why If I already have Global Entry &/or what to do since already Global Entry?

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