What Does “SSSS” On Your Boarding Pass Mean?

Have you ever had an “SSSS” on your boarding pass when taking a flight with an airline? In this post I wanted to take a detailed look at the significance of that. In some cases this isn’t a big deal at all, while in other cases you may have landed on some sort of a list, and get it on every flight, until you get it resolved (as happened to me back in 2017).

What does “SSSS” on a boarding pass stand for?

“SSSS” stands for secondary security screening selection. I’m not sure if the TSA came up with the abbreviation first and then came up with words to justify it, or if it was the other way around. Simply put, an “SSSS” on your boarding pass means that 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, and you have nothing to worry about

As a very frequent flyer, I’d say that nowadays I get “SSSS” on my boarding pass maybe a few times per year, typically on one-way international itineraries.

However, in 2017 I was getting additional screening every single time I flew. I suspect this was because of my unusual travel patterns (I traveled to some “suspicious” countries, booked 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 generally won’t be able to load a mobile boarding pass, or print your boarding pass at home. Instead you’ll get an error message saying that you’ll only be able to print your boarding pass at the airport.

To be clear, just because you get that message doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get extra screening. You could also get a message about not being able to get your boarding pass in advance for a number of other reasons, especially with the complicated travel restrictions nowadays. You’ll know for sure when you print your boarding pass at the airport, and see the “SSSS” on it.

An “SSSS” boarding pass

What is the secondary screening process like?

What should you expect at security if your boarding pass has “SSSS” on it? I’ll share my experience based on the last time I dealt with this in the United States, which admittedly goes back a while.

When the initial TSA agent scans your boarding pass, it will make a loud beep and a red light will illuminate. The agent will 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).

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). The agent will 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.

Expect extra screening if you get “SSSS”

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.

A stamped “SSSS” boarding pass

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.

Note that you can also get a secondary search at the gate on a US-bound flight. I find that the screening process there typically isn’t quite as invasive or time consuming.

I always have a good attitude during the process. It’s not the TSA’s fault, and the agent isn’t any happier about having to perform the secondary search than I am. I’ve also dealt with some really uneducated TSA agents during the process. For example, one time the guy searching my bag found my passports, and thought they were fraudulent, because I have both a United States and German one. He didn’t understand the concept of dual citizenship.

Can you get “SSSS” if you have TSA PreCheck?

TSA PreCheck is a fantastic program whereby enrolled travelers can get expedited airport screening. How does that work in relation to the “SSSS” issue?

  • You can get “SSSS” even if you’re enrolled in TSA PreCheck
  • If you do get “SSSS,” then you won’t receive TSA PreCheck for the itinerary where you were chosen for secondary screening
You won’t get TSA PreCheck on itineraries where you get secondary

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

If you only get an “SSSS” on your boarding pass on one trip, you have nothing to worry about. As I said, I randomly get it every so often, and that’s totally normal. However, if you get this designation several trips in a row, you can assume you’re on some sort of a list.

Don’t worry, it’s not a huge deal, your life isn’t over. 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 that should be investigated and hopefully resolved.

I applied for a Redress Number back in 2017, and about a month later my case was reviewed and resolved. I haven’t had any major issues since.

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.

If you’ve gone through secondary screening in the United States, what was your experience like?

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