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Getting through TSA and airport security is already stressful enough but there’s an additional screening method that you might be subjected to at times. And it happens when you find those four letters, “SSSS” on your boarding pass.
Some people absolutely dread this additional screening but is it really that bad? In this article, I’m going to show you what it means to have SSSS on your boarding pass and what you can expect during the screening process. I’ll also give you some tips for how to avoid getting SSSS in the future!
What does “SSSS” mean on a boarding pass?
SSSS on a boarding pass means that you’ve been selected for “Secondary Security Screening Selection” and that you may be subjected to additional screening measures, such as invasive pat downs, swabs for explosives, and tedious luggage inspections.
While this sounds bad and can be quite time consuming, the process isn’t always as painful as some make it out to be in my experience. Keep reading below to find out more details including how my personal experiences with SSSS have gone.
How do I know if I have an SSSS boarding pass?
The first sign that you might be getting hit with SSSS (also known as a “quad”) is if you go to check-in for your flight on your phone or online and you’re unable to pull up a boarding pass. Instead, you might just see a message that says something like you need to check with the check-in desk or that brings up an error screen.
Sometimes, this can just be a system quirk you have to resolve at the airport but if you’re going to be subject to SSSS, there’s a high chance you won’t be able to pull up your boarding pass online prior to arrival.
The way you know for sure you’ve been selected is that you’ll see “SSSS” printed on your boarding pass, usually near the corner or edges and in bolded letters that are hard to miss. Sometimes the agent who printed your ticket will inform you of your misfortune but other times they’ll simply allow you to find out on your own.
Who gets SSSS on their boarding pass?
There are different reasons why you might get SSSS on your boarding pass.
In some cases, it could be because of your unusual travel patterns. The government may have deemed you an at-risk traveler based on your recent visits to the Middle East or Africa, for example. Or maybe you have a very quick turnaround at a destination, such as flying across the world for a few hours or one night.
Anything that could remotely resemble sketchy activity could increase your odds of getting secondary screening.
Other examples include:
- Passengers with a one-way reservation
- Passengers who pay cash for their tickets
- Random selection
Some people even state that doing things like re-printing an international boarding pass could trigger SSSS, so I always try to avoid re-printing international tickets.
On my very first long-haul international flight (to Australia) I was selected for SSSS. I wasn’t able to print out a ticket from the check-in kiosk and it actually took United a long time to get the computers to finally issue me a boarding pass.
And then when I arrived at the gate, I had to head over to a screening area where I was pat down and my luggage was opened up and searched.
What is an SSSS search like?
The SSSS experience can begin as early as entering the security line. If you have TSA Pre-Check, it’s likely that you won’t get Pre-Check on your boarding pass and will have to go through the standard security line or a line dedicated for airline elites (if that fits you).
Tip: Some have reported having success “cutting” the line by showing a TSA agent that you’ve got to go through an SSSS check.
Once you hand over your boarding pass and ID, a TSA agent will likely call for someone (or even a small team of TSA agents) to initiate your search.
Sometimes there is nobody currently available and you might have to wait several minutes for your search (especially if they are trying to find someone of the same gender), so if you’re cutting things close this can actually be a big problem.
The search can vary but generally you can expect a few things. First, you might be subjected to multiple scanners/x-rays and even asked to go through them more than once.
Second, they’ll ask you to unpack many of your belongings, especially electronics. Your belongings, clothing, and hands, may be swabbed all over, multiple times even. Sometimes the agents will ask you to power on your electronics (if you can’t power it on that can become a big issue so keep things charged up!).
Tip: If you’re traveling with a partner, it’s a good idea for the SSSS passenger to take the bag with fewer items/electronics to make thing easier. We have one designated carry-on filled with electronics and hand that off if needed.
You also will likely get a pat down which can be very in-depth and hands will likely come close to places you’d rather them not to be. If you prefer, you can often get this “enhanced” pat down in a private screening area.
Other times the SSSS screening will take place near the gate like when I left for Australia from LAX. If you’ve already been searched, your boarding pass should have been stamped and they should see that at the gate, allowing you to avoid a second additional screening but some have reported 2X the screening.
Brad recently got “hit with the quad” when we departed Milan to JFK on Emirates first class. The SSSS search actually took place in a closed off area in the first class and business class lounge. Those SSSS passengers actually got to board first so it wasn’t a bad deal but that’s not always how it works.
I recently got SSSS again when departing Cabo, Mexico for Dallas, Texas. The screening process was very simple, though. I didn’t get a pat down and was not forced to unpack my baggage. Instead, they only swabbed the exterior of my bags and then checked the inside of my shoes. The process only took about one to two minutes and wasn’t a major problem. The worst part of it was the looks I got from some of the other passengers who seemed to assume that I’d been caught smuggling drugs from Baja California.
How long does the SSSS search take?
Overall, the time for the SSSS search can range drastically from a couple of minutes to 30+ minutes so try to be as patient as possible. A lot of times these agents know they are inconveniencing you and they want to make the process as stress-free as possible but other times they can be miserable to deal with.
How does SSSS affect connections?
If you have connecting flights, it’s possible that you will have to go through SSSS multiple times, especially if those connections are in the US. But many times you won’t get SSSS on your connecting flights. When I received SSSS for my flight from Cabo to DFW, I did not have SSSS on my boarding pass from DFW to IAH when connecting.
If your connection is abroad and you’re coming to the US, you might not have to go through SSSS at your original point of departure. So I advise to always review all of your boarding passes when they are issued at check-in so that you’ll know what to expect.
Does Global Entry prevent SSSS?
Unfortunately, Global Entry does not prevent you from receiving SSSS on your passport. Plenty of people, including myself and Brad, have gotten SSSS even after joining Global Entry/TSA Pre-Check.
How can I prevent an SSSS search?
There’s no for sure way to 100% prevent being issued a boarding pass with SSSS.
Some have reported that you can ask an airline agent at the check-in desk to re-issue a boarding pass without SSSS but it’s not clear to me what the success rate is when doing so and how much control the airlines have in the process.
However, if you’ve been subject to them on a repeated basis, you can apply for a redress number. This is a special case number that the DHS issues to help you avoid unnecessary additional screening. Basically it’s a way for the government to give you a close look to make sure that you’re not a high-risk traveler.
Sometimes, your name may have ended up on a list because it’s the same or similar to someone who is on a no-fly list and a redress number can fix that.
To get a redress number you simply need to go through the application process which you can do online. It doesn’t take very long at all to fill out and you just need to mail in a signed form along with a copy of your passport or other qualifying document. Sometimes you can hear back within a week but other times it could take a couple of months.
Is the SSSS program effective?
A lot of people question whether or not the program is effective in deterring terrorists. The biggest concern is that one would see “SSSS” plainly on their boarding pass and then simply decide to abandon their plans. Well, even if that is the case, the SSSS still acts as a deterrent so I guess I would consider that a success to a degree.
But if you know anything about TSA you know that they have a 95% failure rate with detections so I think it’s fair to say that there are much bigger issues to address related to airport security like the effectiveness of the standard screening procedures.
Overall, getting SSSS on your boarding pass is not the worst thing that can happen to you. It can be an inconvenience because you have to set aside time for the search and endure pat downs but I don’t think it’s anything to dread in a lot of cases. And if it becomes a repeated problem, you can look into getting a redress number so that you can try to avoid getting SSSS in the future.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. His content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.