What ‘SSSS’ means if it appears on your boarding pass

If your flight is to, from or within the United States, these letters mean you are about to be delayed in reaching your gate.

By Staff Writers, April 7 2021
What ‘SSSS’ means if it appears on your boarding pass

Boarding passes often feel like a badge of honour, an exciting symbol of the beginning of a grand adventure for business or leisure, all summed up in a small handheld card.

There’s a reason they make perfect photographic fodder for social media, often strategically placed next to a passport or glass of bubbles. 

All the details of where you’re flying from and to, gate and seat details, frequent flyer status and more are on show to incite envy among family and friends. 

But what if your boarding pass features the mysterious ‘SSSS’ code? What does that mean, why is it there, and what should you do if it appears on yours?

 

What does ‘SSSS’ mean?

The letters themselves stand for Secondary Security Screening Selection and this seemingly random set of letters on the boarding pass means you’ve been selected for a closer security inspection by local airport security personnel.

It doesn’t necessarily mean you've been identified as a threat; but for any number of reasons, have been flagged simply for a closer and more thorough inspection prior to boarding your flight.

Airport security is a simple, routine process for most travellers, unless 'SSSS' appears on your boarding pass.
Airport security is a simple, routine process for most travellers, unless 'SSSS' appears on your boarding pass.

Designed by America’s Transportation Security Agency (TSA), the code can appear on any boarding pass at any time, although travellers from certain countries are subjected to it by default.

While it is a security directive of the United States, airlines flying from other countries may issue them on boarding passes if the flight will be entering American airspace.

This ‘SSSS’ mark on your boarding pass is simply an advance notice that you’ll undertake this and any other checks the TSA wishes to apply.

Why is ‘SSSS’ on my boarding pass?

Although neither the TSA nor the airlines have revealed the criteria on which passengers are chosen, it’s fair to presume you’ve been picked if you get an error message when trying to print your boarding pass at home or when trying to load it into your mobile.

There’s also no way of knowing in advance whether or not you’ll get the dreaded ‘SSSS’ mark by the time your flight rolls around, and your name may be added to a ‘Selectee List’ of travellers to have undertaken the extra security check.

What does ‘SSSS’ mean for my trip?

As previously stated, there’s no reason to get especially worried that you’ll miss your domestic US flight - unless indeed you do have something to hide.

However, if you notice upon checking in for your flight that your boarding pass is adorned with 'SSSS', we suggest heading directly to the security checkpoint, because the additional screening will add 10 to 20 minutes (or more) to your boarding process.

What will happen during this extra screening?

As well as the typical baggage X-ray and walk-through metal detector (or body scanner), you could be in for a full-body pat down, a manual baggage search, explosive trace detection on hands, feet and clothing, a once-over with a hand held metal detector – or all of the above.

Landing an 'SSSS' means you and your luggage may be screened and/or searched more than once.
Landing an 'SSSS' means you and your luggage may be screened and/or searched more than once.

Once you’ve been through those extra checks and have been cleared, a TSA officer will apply some distinctive markings to your boarding pass.

This is often a handwritten ‘SSSS-10’ along with three adjacent stars, although the markings change frequently and vary from airport to airport.

Those annotations on your boarding pass indicate that you’ve been screened appropriately to airline staff at the boarding gate.

It’s a good idea to make sure that these annotations have been made once you're finished with the additional checks. If your boarding pass lacks them, you won’t be able to board until you've been re-screened.

Are there ways to avoid ‘SSSS’ in future?

Whilst there is no bulletproof way to avoid being selected, there are several factors which can trigger the SSSS marking on your boarding pass. 

America's TSA can be an intimidating force but ultimately, all they want to ensure is everybody's safety.
America's TSA can be an intimidating force but ultimately, all they want to ensure is everybody's safety.

Some flyers may unconsciously flag themselves because of inconsistent travel behaviours like booking last-minute flights, paying cash for their tickets, buying international one-way fares or flying from “high-risk” countries.

However, you might also be prone for selection if you’re travelling by yourself.

Minors will never be earmarked with ‘SSSS’ on their boarding passes, however if their name is similar to another traveller who is on the list, they may be subjected to extra screening.

Should I be worried if my boarding pass says ‘SSSS’?

American airport security has long held a reputation for being particularly intimidating and unapologetically strict, and rightly so.

Everybody wants to reach their destination on-time but more importantly than that, safely, which is a primary focus for the TSA.

So unless you genuinely have nefarious intentions, there’s no reason to be concerned if your boarding pass features the dreaded ‘SSSS’ mark. 

Losing a few minutes browsing the airport’s retailers is a small price to pay to ensure airport security is doing its work to the best of its ability.

Very good to know Chris! Thank you!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

07 Mar 2014

Total posts 73

I had this happen to me at SEA in 2003 as the only person in a group of 5 however the others were all USA passport holders. 

Even though I was sent down the much shorter queue the screening process took for-ever!


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Aug 2012

Total posts 2207

"Five words: randomly selected for additional screening."

21 Sep 2011

Total posts 71

Not limited to domestic flights, SSSS happens all the time to international flights heading to the States as well. It may not happen often to Aussie passport holders but people are being screened at airports around the world.

I have had this happen to me at AKL and NRT. At AKL, your documents will be checked before you go near the boaring gates. If you have SSSS on your boarding pass, you will be sent to the room next to it and you and your bags will be searched. They won't neccesarily mark your boarding pass.

At NRT, before boarding commences, your name will be called to report to the boarding desk where you will be asked to go to the room next to the gate to do these things. Once it's done, they will return you back to the boarding area which I think defeats the purpose of the search. They will keep calling your name until all of these people are screened. Again, no marking on boarding pass. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Jun 2013

Total posts 366

Thanks for the advice.

CL9
CL9

22 Mar 2012

Total posts 200

If SSSS appeared on my boarding pass, I'd have a burning desire to scribble it out with a pen. ;)

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Feb 2012

Total posts 9

Hmmm def something to pay attention to!

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

21 Aug 2013

Total posts 138

As Robin Williams said, "We're just gonna randomly select some passengers...these names are TOTALLY random. Three Arab men and a blonde named Judy Smith..."

QF

07 May 2014

Total posts 3

Had it a couple of years ago and missed my flight, to say the least they were very very thorough, AA were very good in rebooking me on the next flight

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

27 Jun 2013

Total posts 41

Hey Chris,

Are you sure that its purely for additional (slower) screening?
When I was QF Platinum a couple of years ago I also had SSSS as well as PRIORITY on my boarding pass. I got walked through each step including customs and xray but I got through faster than everyone else.

Maybe I just had a good run? :-)

15 Feb 2013

Total posts 163

One reason for this is if you make a sudden last minute change to your flight. Eg. Asking for an earlier flight will often mean you end up with this - has happened to me in Hawaii and LA. Also sometimes other unusual situations - extra luggage is one. We had 9 checked items once at LA for 2 people and got SSSS.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 May 2014

Total posts 3

Happened to me a few times flying out of SYD. As you entered the boarding gate you were taken aside to (a barely) screened off area, given a pat down and a hand luggage search.

No big deal.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Sep 2013

Total posts 1244

I love this kind of "behind-the-scenes"/travel-demystified stories.

01 Aug 2012

Total posts 30

Unless I'm missing something here this procedure is plain ridiculous. What is the point of enhanced security checks if the passengers selected are informed beforehand? It's a bit like the police telling burglars which streets the plain-clothes officers will be patroling tonight.

07 Jul 2014

Total posts 4

Two words: not random

29 Mar 2015

Total posts 1

I've had the 4S treatment several times :(  I was born in Africa and I suspect this causes alarm when it is seen on my passport.  My father was serving there as a British army officer - nothing sinister.  

On the first SSSS occasion, I was instructed to sit at a table with 2 chairs and I obeyed without comment.  I did turn my chair 90 degrees to face the second chair, as I was expecting an 'interview'.  Seemingly this was an excuse to trigger a very loud and hostile response from the security staff-member.  Later I suspected the chair had been facing a camera and I had upset their positioning.

I recently heard of another innocent passenger named Mr Atta who got the 4S treatment (Yes Mohamed Atta is named as the 'ring-leader of 9/11')  I gather he was advised not to travel ever again.  This seems like racial discrimination but focused on surnames!


Hi Guest, join in the discussion on What ‘SSSS’ means if it appears on your boarding pass