What does 'SSSS' on your boarding pass mean?

By Chris Chamberlin , May 28 2014
What does 'SSSS' on your boarding pass mean?

'SSSS'. It's a seemingly random set of letters on the boarding pass for your domestic US flight, but it means you're in for an extra security screening by the TSA agents.

The letters themselves stand for Secondary Security Screening Selection, although neither the TSA nor the airlines have revealed the criteria on which passengers are chosen.

So what does it mean when you see those letters appear on your boarding pass?

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

For this reason, 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 your screening time will take longer than usual.

Once you've been through those extra checks and have been cleared, a TSA officer will apply some distinctive markings to your boarding pass – in the photograph shown, this is the handwritten 'SSSS-10' and the three stars next to 'SSSS', 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.

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Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin is the Associate Editor of Executive Traveller, and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins not just with a single step, but also a strong latte, a theatre ticket, and later in the day, a good gin and tonic.

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 2223

"Five words: randomly selected for additional screening."

21 Sep 2011

Total posts 65

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 367

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 135

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 38

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? :-)

Hey ryanpst,

I'm thinking you just had a good run – normally you wouldn't be walked through by the airport staff unless travelling in Qantas' first class cabin or had a tight connection, but methinks the word 'priority' saved you on that occasion! :)

15 Feb 2013

Total posts 165

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 1227

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!


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