Everything You Need To Know About Getting An “SSSS” On Your Boarding Pass

Have you ever had an “SSSS” on your boarding pass when flying? Well, unfortunately I’ve become so accustomed to getting this that I figured I’d write a guide about what to expect.

What does “SSSS” on a boarding pass mean?

“SSSS” stands for secondary security screening selection. I’m not sure if they came up with the acronym first and then came up with words to justify it, or what.

Simply put, it means you’re getting an extra thorough search when you go through security.

What causes someone to get “SSSS” on their boarding pass?

There are a variety of things that can cause you to get selected for secondary security screening. Based on my understanding:

  • Sometimes it’s because the specific itinerary you’re on is unusual; this could include flights booked last minute, international one-way tickets, travel originating in “high-risk” countries, etc.
  • Sometimes it’s because you’re on some sort of a list; I have no clue what causes people to get on lists, though I suspect for some people it’s because of their travel patterns, for others it’s because of their names, and for others it’s because they’re being watched more carefully for whatever reason
  • Sometimes it’s completely random, though best I can tell that’s the exception

I’m a super frequent flyer, and in the past I’d get subjected to additional screening maybe once every couple of months. However, as of this year I get additional screening every single time I fly. I suspect this is because of my unusual travel patterns (I travel to some “suspicious” countries, book a lot of one-way international flights, etc.).

Are there any signs that you’ll be subjected to additional security?

There’s no way to know when you book whether you’ll get the dreaded “SSSS.” However, if you’re going to get it, you won’t be able to load your boarding pass online. Instead you’ll get a message saying that you’ll only be able to print your boarding pass at the airport.

SSSS

To be clear, just because you get that message doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get extra screening. You could also get that for a number of other reasons. You’ll know for sure when you print your boarding pass at the airport, and see the “SSSS” on it.

SSSS

What is the U.S. secondary screening process like?

When the initial TSA agent scans your boarding pass, it will make a loud beep and a red light will illuminate. They’ll radio for a supervisor and say they have a “quad” (which I guess is the codeword for “SSSS,” with the “quad” referring to the four letters).

TSA-1

The TSA agent will tell you “the airline has randomly selected you for additional screening” (which is a lie), and ask you to step to the side. A TSA lead or supervisor (someone with two or three stripes on their uniform) will show up eventually and escort you to a separate lane. In my experience they’ll typically close a lane in order for you to be screened. At a minimum they’ll put two upside down bins around your items to separate them from everyone else’s.

The good news is that you get to cut the rest of the line, so if there are people waiting, you cut ahead of everyone. It’s the only positive aspect of the experience. 😉

Then you’ll be asked to walk through the metal detector, and then back again. Then you’ll be asked to go through the full body scanner. Then you’ll get a full body pat down (which you can choose to have in private, if you want). They pat down every inch of your body, from your waistline to the area around your crotch. The fact that they scan your body in three ways seems like a slight overkill to me, but whatever…

At this point there will typically be at least two TSA agents involved, if not three. One will search every inch of your belongings. Not only will they look at everything, but they’ll swab your items to check them for any residue. They’ll also ask you to power on your electronics. They just need to make sure that they can turn on, so be sure you have battery power for all your electronics.

TSA-2

Meanwhile typically the supervisor will take a picture of your boarding pass and ID, fill out a form, and then eventually stamp your boarding pass to indicate that you’ve been screened.

SSSS-1

This is an important point, because when you get to the gate your boarding pass will “alarm” once again, at which point the gate agent will check to make sure the TSA “stamp” is on there. If you don’t have it then they’ll have to call the TSA to the gate.

The entire screening process takes anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes, in my experience, depending on how efficient the people screening you are.

I always have a good attitude during the process. It’s not the TSA’s fault, and they’re not any happier about having to perform the secondary search than I am. I actually take it a step further and tell them that I get it multiple times a week and am familiar with the process. It saves everyone time. While I’m not usually a fan of the TSA as such, I’m not going to let it out on the frontline workers.

However, I’ve also dealt with some really dumb TSA agents during the process. For example, last week the guy searching my bag found my passports, and thought they were fraudulent, because I have both a U.S. and German one. He didn’t understand the concept of dual citizenship.

What can you do if you frequently get “SSSS?”

If you only get this on one trip, you have nothing to worry about. Like I said, I’ve randomly gotten it every so often in the past. However, if you get this designation several trips in a row, you can assume you’re on some sort of a list.

The way you’ll want to address this is by applying for a Redress number. You can do so through the DHS TRIP program, which stands for Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. There you just fill out basic details sharing what you think the problem is, and then supposedly they’ll investigate.

That’s what I’ve done, though I only submitted this last week, so I suspect it will be a while before there’s a resolution.

Bottom line

Getting the dreaded “SSSS” on your boarding pass sure can be a pain. It’ll add quite a bit of time to the screening process, and is invasive, as they’ll touch every inch of you and your bag. If you just get this as a one-off thing, don’t be worried. However, if you get this several times in a row, there’s a chance you’re on some sort of a list, and may want to start the DHS TRIP process. That’s where I’m at, and I’m hoping it’s resolved soon…

If you’ve gone through secondary screening in the U.S., what was your experience like?

Comments

  1. Immediately after 9/11, for about 2 months, every time I traveled I got this. The extra security screening was fairly quick, always under 5 min. I once blurted out to the agents: “is that because I have a bloody foreign name?”. But when they told me it is not them who selected me, I just shut up. Back then I also travelled a lot on one-way tickets. After 2 months however it stopped, and never had it again (hope I am not jinxing it).

  2. @ Daniel B. — The secondary process used to be pretty quick, but in the past year or two they made it much more thorough, sadly.

  3. Oh boy I started travelling for work a lot when I was 18yo. I became EXP when I was 19 and did a lot of international travel. I was getting the freaking SSSS on every trip. Until one day in Miami the USCBP took me to a secondary room for questioning. The agent was a piece of smoky manure. He treated me really bad at the beginning. I guess he did it at the beginning to try to “crack” me or wear me down. After like 1 hour of explaining and he checking my work, my company, my boss, all of my flights, he apologized and said that they dont get many “kids” who travel so much for work, so it was very suspicious. After that no more SSSS!!

    I did not have to apply for Reddress or anything.
    🙂

  4. My 13 year old son got it on our family’s return flight from Hawaii. He was the only one and we were all on one reservation. He has Global Entry and has no unusual travel or tickets unles you count one way interisland flights. Hoping he was one of the random ones. Will find out in April when he flies again. In this case they took him and my wife and they both had to get the extra screening that was complicated when he was carrying his older ipod that was not charged. Took them 30-40 minutes in HNL.

  5. I thought that getting global entry would solve this problem, but I still got SSSS on my last flight. I suspected the airline put my on the SSSS list because I refused to pay for a seat assignment, and just waited to be assigned randomly. Is that possible?

    Hope the redress number fixes your problem. I may look into it if I keep getting randomly selected. FYI–I’ve also travel led to Turkey in the past 2 years, in case you still think that was why you’re on a list.

  6. I would like to add as well, if your electronics do not turn on while under SSSS screening, they will confiscate them. I travel a lot for work and have lived in some “questionable” countries and they so kindly took my apple watch because it wouldn’t turn on and was so depleted that even plugging it in wouldn’t turn it on for awhile — which only further irritated them. I

  7. @ JK — Heh, I can promise an airline didn’t put you on the list because you didn’t want to pay for a seat assignments. Airlines aren’t *that* vindictive.

  8. I’m familiar with it, but here’s a doozy.

    I was flying yyz-iah-Jan. My Yyz-Iah Flight was delayed about an hour and a half, causing me a misconnect in Houston. Once I landed late, I went to the united club to have them reprint me a new pass for the next (and last flight of the day). It had SSSS on it. No biggie though, I was already in the sterile area, and never left it.

    Well Houston has the weird setup for express gates, you wait in this large atrium, and when they start boarding, you head down to a small alley to board, and they do it about T-15 (it’s almost all E145s).

    So they call my flight, I head down, scan, the agent panics because i didn’t go through secondary at Houston (I never left the sterile area). Has to call security, they escort me back to a checkpoint that’s a 10 minute walk, I get he full treatment, then have to run back. By the time I get back, flight left. UA booked me the next morning, but guess who had to pay for food and hotel for the night (hint: not UA).

    Still irritates me today thinking about that.

  9. I’ve been sent to secondary screening on a Cathay flight from HKG to SFO. I am pretty sure the airline(cabin crew) flagged me and another pax in J as we were complaining about a Y class China person who kept bringing her infant to the J washroom and letting him crap in the sink. Apparently this person was known to the FAs who was also mainland Chinese. I was told by quite a few cabin Crew that this was done by the cabin crew. They usually do this to problem pax.

  10. This is what Emirates says on their web site regarding electronic items:

    What are the enhanced security measures for flights to USA, Canada and UK?
    All those travelling to USA, Canada and the UK are required to switch on their electronic devices at the Dubai International airport or risk being denied access to fly. Please ensure that your electronic devices have sufficient power before reaching the airport. This is part of enhanced security measures required by the authorities of these countries.
    All hand baggage is subject to screening. Screening will be done at relevant boarding gates, for flights departing to destinations in the US, UK and Canada.
    Passengers who are unable to switch on their electronic devices risk being offloaded or being asked to leave behind such devices. There is no secure location to store these devices, and Emirates will be unable to bear responsibility for these items.

  11. I flew EBL-DOH-PHL-MSY in December, so I naturally got the SSSS on the way back (in DOH). It was not at all surprising that a guy on a one-way from Iraq would get it added on his ticket. Had it on my next flight, MSY-IAH-CUN as well, but not on the flight back. Then got it again flying MSY-BOS (each way), and then it was gone again last week when I flew MSY-IAH-PBC and back. Is it gone for good? I’m sure that I will find out.

    I will say that, with the exception of the first occurrence in DOH, the SSSS has actually meant that I got through security just as fast as I would otherwise.

  12. I had SSSS last month, International SFO terminal. Early morning flight to Vancouver CA. Ticket marked SSSS. So started the drill. The telescoping handle of my small laptop bag set-off TSA’s admittedly overly sensitive scanner. This meant they needed to call an “Expert”. Took him 40+ mins to arrive. He wrote notes into an old fashion spiral notebook and said everything looked good. Ran to my flight and made it just as they were closed the door. Costs me almost an hour of stress. Ironically, I had SSSS on the return flight (Vancouver) and TSA made me walk through an additional scanner and off I went. Such a difference between the 2 SSSS security events that I wrote to TSA in frustration and they offered me the DHS TRIP program too. Haven’t had SSSS since.

  13. Hmmmm …. why would they “let someone know” they are going to be extra scanned? Wouldn’t this make the real bad guys be aware and then pass their bags to a friend who is not flagged? I can think of so many ways to circumvent like in ben’s case pass the second passport to a friend who is not flagged to avoid questioning. I’m sure the bad hats will think of more creative ways. I think indicating to someone you’ve been tagged is silly

  14. @ Alian — Yeah, the whole system is a bit ridiculous. I was traveling with Ford and he didn’t have “SSSS,” so he took the bigger bag so there would be less for them to search.

  15. @ Anders — Yes and no. I think the bigger problem is that in tests the TSA has missed 95% of weapons and explosives. So they’re not keeping us safe. The additional screening is certainly a *lot* more thorough, and I think they’re much more likely to catch something with that test. That being said, I think the bigger problem is what a colossal failure the TSA is under normal conditions. They should be screening people in such a way that they’re not missing 95% of weapons and explosives.

  16. I have 7 year old twins. A week ago one was randomly flagged in the PreCheck line for additional screening. His hands were swabbed and tested…he failed for some reason. The TSA agent started to tell me he’d have to pat him down but then stopped and called a supervisor over. The super looked at my son and said he was fine but that I’d get the pat down. But only the pat down happened, no additional scanning was done and my hands weren’t swabbed. The agent kept apologizing and saying he’d never had an under 12 flagged like this. Later in the week my other 7 year old was also flagged in PreCheck, luckily the hand swab was clear, but I held my breath until it cleared.

  17. @Lucky
    Curious how the situation went with the agent who found your two passports. I too have duall citizenship & carry both passports with all my trips both domestic & International.
    I have Global Entry and both passport information is on my GE record. Last year my non-US passport was renewed and I had to pop into the GE office at SFO. Agent asked why I have two passports…and I said because I’m a dual citizen! He just laughed.

  18. Once going through CDG security I had a dead battery in my iPad and I was sent to charge it up. After it turned on, I was allowed back through screening.

    I believe I’ve had SSSS twice, both times from Geneva Switzerland to JFK. The Swiss take you from the Check In line and put you in a private room with two Swiss agents who pat you down and go through everything. You are then released for regular security screening. And finally at the gate, another agent takes you to a table where your bags searched again before boarding.

  19. I got the SSSS on a one way CAI-AUH-NYC flight. The only time I received extra screening was when I was going through security in AUH, where I was taken to a separate line, my items were looked through, and I got a pat down. It did not take more than five minutes. When I went through CBP at AUH, I received no extra screening and was processed as a regular global entry passenger.

  20. I’ve been SSSS’ed flying out of Canada (to the US/international) several times, but I’ve never been escorted to the front of the line or had to power on my electronics. Last time I got put through the body scanner, but I don’t think they even opened my suitcase.

  21. My wife got one when we were flying back from Fiji. The strange/weird/sad/useless part is that she got this when she checked in but was free to wander the airport for an hour or so before being pulled aside and screened, giving her plenty of time to dispose or transfer any item she might of had to me or anyone in our travel group.

  22. @ Melissa — I should have clarified, the procedure is typically a bit different if you get “SSSS” abroad. The procedure I outlined is exclusively what seems to happen when you get it in the U.S. with the TSA.

  23. On my return trip from Thailand in January, I flew BKK-AUH-LAX on Etihad on miles, so I had to redeem two one way tickets. The ticket agent at BKK printed out both boarding passes. At BKK, nothing out of the ordinary happened. When I got to AUH pre-clearance, my scanned ticket beeped. I didn’t even look at the AUH-LAX ticket, and sure enough, SSSS. (Note: I am Asian, born and raised in the US. My white boyfriend was flying with the same type of ticket, but didn’t get SSSS.)

    They had me wait in a separate waiting area until they called me out for additional screening. I think people were called based on boarding time, because I was called before some of the people who were already in the room. They went through everything in my bag, and threw away my travel contact solution, which had gone through five security checks on this trip. I was pat down very thoroughly, and to make it even scarier, they told me to go into a private room after the pat down. What did I have to do? Take off my jeans so that they could fondle my balls some more. SSSS in a Middle Eastern country is no joke; scariest security check ever.

  24. I had SSSS once on a Southwest flight which was super annoying because you can’t check-in until you get to the airport so I was stuck with a C boarding position and got stuck with a middle seat.

  25. I received a handwritten SSSS from an idiot passport control person at Vancouver as I arrived to Canada from US for a first time. I was pulled to a separate interrogation area with half a dozen tables and agents “doing” different travelers. The lady agent was extra nasty. Trashed my bags. Pulled my FBI file (she is Canadian border official, not US!), downloaded everything from my cellphone, read my SMS, email messages, opened every app and didn’t even bother to close them. Threatened to fine $1500 for an apple (which was cut in pieces and wasn’t actually illegal to have as a snack food).
    After an hour and a half of insults and threats I was let go, but I’m sure never going to visit Canada or buy anything Canadian ever again.

    One piece of information. According to many affected by SSSS [Nazi Germany had an infamous “SS” force, it might be connected 🙂 ] this status stays with you for 4 months in North America.
    Meaning crossing any airport in US/Canada (maybe Mexico) and coming into US/Canada. I had the same experience. It was gone after 4 months. But in those 4 months I was stopped for example in HND when boarding direct flight to SFO. I was in JAL First and they panicked when I flashed RED – I was one of the only two “First”s there and they are extremely special about treating their Firsts. Literally rolling out the red carpet and making everyone else wait. No parallel boarding!
    So everyone else on the gate was watching. It was a bit hilarious to me.
    I realized why I was RED and as I told them they apologize dozen of times and did a 30 seconds “swipe here and there in 4 places” dance around me and send me boarding. I guess they didn’t give a crap about North America crazies’ requirements and just wanted to put a check mark – “SSSScreaned”.

  26. Awesome job documenting your experience. I get the SSSS every time I’m flying back into the US and the process is exactly as described. As for the person who said that it goes away after 4 months this is not true in my case. I have an appointment to get setup for Global Entry and thought this would resolve the issue, but looks like I need to apply for DHS Trip. Definitely interested in learning more about the outcome. Please keep us posted. Thanks

  27. I got it once flying from LHR to JKF after the interrogation at LHR Admirals when I was connecting in Heathrow.

    The lounge agent doing the interrogation (British of Indian family) wasn’t particularly nice or polite and some of the questions were stupid and/or intrusive (when asked surrounded by a lot of people who were also waiting to be admitted to the lounge) so I wasn’t particularly polite to her, next thing I know is that she reprinted the boarding pass and I got the SSSS. Funnily enough I had a connection in JFK and that had the Precheck on it. It was a one off luckily but it shows that the agent can do it manually.

  28. I got caught by the agricultural inspectors with an apple in my purse coming from EZE to MIA and afterwards I always got SSSS. Later, when I had my Global Entry interview, they asked me about it. It’s no longer happening. One apple.

  29. ‘Hmmmm …. why would they “let someone know” they are going to be extra scanned? Wouldn’t this make the real bad guys be aware and then pass their bags to a friend who is not flagged?’

    It’s called security theater. It’s supposed to make everyone feel safe.

  30. Ever since I got GE back in 2015 I have been getting SSSS every time I fly into the US from outside the country. Doesn’t matter if it’s Canada, EU or middle east I get it every single time without a fail. I even have a redress number by DHS TRIP but that didn’t help. I have asked every single TSA and CBP supervisor about why the hell do I get it but no luck. I even visited CBP office for GE once at the DFW Airport for this but still no use. I have no freaking clue as to why I am getting it.

  31. My nine year old was chosen a couple of years after 9/11 and as her mum so was I, as well as the rest of my party! They even patted down my 7 month old’s nappy…… they took 40 minutes and we missed out DEN-LAX flight which had a connection to Melbourne. The kicker? When we got to the gate, a furious attendant asked where we had been. I asked where our luggage was …. and yep…. she had to admit it was still on the departed plane……..

    We’ve had it twice since, but not the last few times.

  32. My SSSS experience is pretty similar to yours most of the time, except I can never check in at Kiosk in USA. Everytime after I scan my passport, an alert will show me to see the agent. The airline employee will check my passport and then print the dreadful ‘SSSS’ ticket. If I make redemption for myself and my husband under one reservation using my miles, sometimes the SSSS will show up on his ticket instead of mine, but both of us will go through the second screen. Most time the second screen takes extra 20 minutes or so, but one time it took 40 minutes because they were checking explosive powder everywhere from my head to toe and everything in my backpack.

    One time coming back They took me to a separate room, where they took one hour to investigate everything on a computer. I was calm, but many foreigners there, some people were so nervous and were threaten to be deported.

    I always arrive more than 3 hours before departure time, and always make sure I have plenty of connection time.

  33. I lived in Kyrgyzstan for a couple years and because of that I transited through Turkey many times. Upon returning to the US I was a ‘selectee’ for my next 3 r/t flights. I was eventually told it was due to my travel habits, specifically transiting Istanbul many times.

    My only advice is to go a bit early, be patient and don’t wait in line. Just go to the edge and tell one of the agents you’re a selectee.

  34. DH and I flew LAX-EZE and back in business in January. On the return I got the SSSS and he did not. We were connecting in Lima. In EZE, there was nothing – no extra screening, no patdown, nada. In LIM, I and two other passengers had our carryons “inspected” (cursory; the agent opened my camera bag to look at it and turned on my iPhone) and our hands and shoes swabbed.

    Then the agent told us to sit there until the entire plane (a 787) had boarded. When I pointed out that DH was standing there waiting for me, she said that I could board as long as I boarded with him. I’ve never figured that one out. I had no issues with Global Entry upon arrival at LAX, thankfully.

    I had the SSSS once before, maybe 5 years ago, so am hoping this was another random one and will not be a fixture on my boarding passes in the coming months.

  35. So, I have read through all of these comments and I was surprised not to see two points which will probably benefit nearly all of you:

    (1) If you have a frequent flyer program membership with a US airline (and a few others), you should be sure to add either your redress number or your Global Entry number into your permanent online profile (which will then transfer into your reservation if you give your frequent flier number to the airline).

    (2) If you are at a kiosk or if you checked in from home and you get the SSSS, all you have to do is go to the counter and sweetly ask the agent to re-issue the boarding pass without the SSSS on it. I have done it a few times over the years with 100% success.

    (3) On a related note, it is important to remember that TSA Pre-Check works for most of your travel but that 1 or 2 of every 10 segments you won’t get it.

    (4) By the way, there is value in dressing up for check-in and security and being unfailingly polite and friendly. I wear a bowtie and a sports jacket if not a suit.

    Wishing you better luck to all of you!

  36. Sorry, I disagree with the statement that merely travelling through IST puts you on the SSSS list. I have been to and through (in transit) Istanbul probably 30 times and this is not my experience. I agree that it could be an indication or a flag but it is not a solitary factor. As explained above, I have my own system to ensure (so far) that I do not have problems.

  37. Just back from usa. Going out in dublin an x was on my boarding pass with ssss. As this was my first every long hall flight I didnt know what was happening. All he said was problem with finger prints and took me away to a holding room. They went through alot of questions and my phone all my contacts and my apps. This took an hour and 20 minsJust got plane by skin of teeth. Coming home was same this time I also got patted down and swabbed.

  38. I fear we’ll see more SSSS from Canada to USA. My trip was a simple LAX-YYC-LAX. I’m Global Select. (And the airline had my frequent flier number on my ticket.) Also, I’m a frequent flyer with over 3 million miles and never had SSSS before. Lucky? Maybe, but the point is I was in a sea of grey: elders, all US citizens, looking to be over 70 that were ALL selected for the special screening. I wonder if it has to do with Trump’s travel bans? In any case, it took about an hour to get to the front of the line of selected folks and then through the very thorough process. Thank goodness I got to the airport with a lot of extra time. But none of those seniors from the U.S. looked likely to be any kind of security challenge. I’m a little younger, but have never traveled to Turkey or the middle east. No clue why I was selected, but even curiouser why all the elders got selected that day. I don’t believe our selection was random at all.

  39. I just got my first SSSS flying from ylw sea sjc. I have a TKN which disappeared and replaced with SSSS.
    I have disabilities with a lot of metal inside me so I am used to extra pat downs and I try to go through the x-ray so I don’t get the full pat down. I was really surprised how long it took and I had to go through the x-ray plus wanded and pat down. They didn’t ask that the electronics were turned on. YLW is a small airport and they didn’t examine the carry on that thoroughly. When I arrived in Seattle we were in a secure area and got through customs and immigration fast, I thought we would be going to the next gate but no they funneled everyone through another security checkpoint and with the SSSS I had to go through it again even though 90 mins before I had just had it done! They said because Canada does it differently from the USA they had to do it again. Well this time it was totally invasive they do not do a “pat down” they used the palm of their hand and run their hands down every part of your body even the bottom of my feet. I had asked for a privacy when I heard they would be using the palm instead of the back of the hand. I was humiliated even though the TSA girls were really nice and tried their best to engage me throughout the process. All my belonging were xrayed a number of times and then examined by hand even opening my travel wallet. Of course everything was swabbed. My son and husband were waiting and we barely made it to our next flight, we had an hour and 45 mins before the last flight.
    I mainly travel to Canada and throughout the USA and have traveled to Australia last year, I have never traveled to the middle east and last time I traveled to Europe was over 10 years ago. So I have no idea why I got the SSSS. I don’t think I can go through that experience again and I have two more flights booked this year, one within the USA and one back to Canada.

  40. I travel weekly for work with TSA-PRE and I got back from Cuba and I just got my first SSSS today and it was horrifying. It has never happened before and I wasn’t expecting it. The manager, who was SO annoyed with ME, explained she usually gets a prewarning the day someone subject to SSSS is coming through? It took them over an hour to swab all my things and they treated me like a criminal as I was not allowed my shoes or jacket, closing down and entire security lane and marching me around to different security machines as people stared. They also took out my ids from my belongings and matched them to my passport. My ex husband was Turkish, and I have been to turkey 4 times but 5 years ago was the most recent but I am a US citizen who travels often and never had any issue. I hate to think it but I am wondering if I am now being profiled for my “Muslim”/Turkish last name with the new administration? I am a blonde girl… pretty authentically American looking… so I’m really not sure why the sudden SSSS. So this is really all I can figure.

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