SSSS on Your Boarding Pass? TSA and What You Need to Know

by Miles Jackson

Have you gotten SSSS on you boarding pass and had to pass through extra security? Did the TSA or Department of Homeland Security (DHS) target you?

Whether you are on a business trip, taking a vacation or perhaps on a Mileage Run, getting through security gets more frustrating and difficult as time passes. This seems even more prevalent at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening checkpoints. TSA precheck can certainly help in USA airports but traveling internationally the procedures vary greatly from one airport to another. Do you keep shoes on or take them off? Belts on, off? What about items in your pocket?

I fly more than 130,000 air miles annually and I really appreciate airports that make the process of clearing security quick and easy. However, there may occasionally come a time when this dreaded acronym appears on your boarding pass; SSSS!

The dreaded ‘SSSS’ appears on your boarding pass

I like to travel smoothly and move freely between destinations and within airports to maximize lounge enjoyment and minimize security lines. So SSSS is something I never like to see on my boarding pass. Luckily, I have only experienced it twice in nearly a million miles of flying in the past few years. Most recently I got an SSSS printed on my boarding pass departing Madrid. I spent a few nights at the Doubletree by Hilton Madrid – Prado, a hotel I reviewed and highly recommend! It’s close to the main sights in the Centro district of the city.

What is SSSS and What Do Those Letters Mean?

SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection. Although the SSSS is printed by the airline on your boarding pass. The decision to include you for secondary screening comes from the TSA’s Secure Flight Program, developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to combat terrorism in the post-9/11 world of travel.

If you find those letters on your boarding pass you may think you are in for a longer, more hassled experience getting to board your flight, and you would be right.

SSSS, DHS & TSA Screening Criteria

Secure Flight is a risk-based passenger prescreening program that enhances security by identifying low and high-risk passengers before they arrive at the airport by matching their names against trusted traveler lists and watch lists.

Although the actual criteria for selection is not revealed, the TSA doesn’t provide the exact reasons that people are selected for secondary screening. However, factors might include frequent travel (uh oh, Mileage Runners,) one-way flights to or from an international location, travel from a country designated as ‘high-risk’ by the State Department, and even last-minute flights. Another possibility is your name is similar to another person’s which appears on watch lists monitored by Homeland Security.

Of course, if you are on a similar watch list yourself, you can expect to see SSSS on your boarding pass. Additionally, flyers that have expired green cards that are in the process of being renewed and are traveling back to the U.S. on a “permit to travel” (I-751) can possibly get flagged. It also is randomly generated as an ‘added measure of security;’ just to keep travelers on their toes?

How SSSS Affects Your Check-In

If you are selected for additional screening, you will not be able to print your boarding pass at home (or hotel, if traveling) nor access your mobile boarding pass on your smart device (tablet or phone.) Although it is not always the case that these circumstances mean you have been selected as an SSSS candidate; just be aware that it is a possibility. In those cases, make sure you get to the airport earlier to resolve any issues with getting your boarding pass. Usually, my biggest concern is to ensure that my boarding pass states “DOCS OK.” That indicates that my passport and any necessary visas are properly entered into my flight record. When there is an issue, the same symptoms can appear; unable to print boarding pass or use airport self check-in kiosks.

 

DOCS OK Does not mean you are exempt from SSSS

My Recent SSSS Experience with Secondary Screening

In my most recent case, while returning from Madrid, I was unable to get a boarding pass at the airport’s self-service kiosk after scanning my passport. After proceeding to the airline’s ticket counter and checking in personally, I was handed my boarding printed pass; of course with the SSSS clearly visible!

In my case, I was instructed to proceed through the normal security lines as usual but then report to my gate as soon as possible for ‘additional security precautions.’ Often in the United States once you present your boarding pass to the TSA agent working the podium (where you present your boarding pass and matching ID) you will then be told you are required to undergo additional screening.

SSSS – Secondary Screening Procedures

Procedures vary, especially when out of the country. You should expect to be asked to enter the full body scanner as well as through the less-complicated metal detector arch. In almost every situation, you will be asked to undergo a full body patdown by the TSA agent and a full inspection of everything you have brought in your carry-on bags. As a word of precaution; a TSA agent is entitled to ask that you turn on each electronic device to make sure it truly is what it seems to be. So make sure your devices are charged enough to accomplish that task.

In Madrid, after I reported to my gate and showed my boarding pass with the SSSS clearly displayed I was told to report to the end of the terminal where these secondary screenings were being conducted. The agents had taken over an entire gate area and set up an ad hoc inspection station. People were instructed to line up in single file and then we were separated into one of two lines (randomly selected?)

After handing my boarding pass over to the agent I was then told to take my possessions to a specific table for inspection. There were about two dozen such tables with perhaps six agents working these. In my cases, the agent spoke very little but asked to see virtually every item in my laptop bag plus my carry-on suitcase. He did ask a few times as to what a specific item was or its purpose.

After the SSSS TSA Inspection Concludes

Once that inspection was completed I was directed to a third agent who had a list of questions prepared. These were the usual standard questions like what was the purpose of my trip. He also asked where did I stay, what did I see and what was my favorite sight in the city. Perhaps as a way to keep you off guard, I was asked where I visited around the same time last year. Odd, but I passed it off as one of those random questions to see if you are genuine traveler.

The whole process took about 20 minutes and that seems pretty standard as long as things go smoothly.

Back to the Gate and Boarding? Hopefully

If everything goes well, the TSA agent will fill out a form on your inspection and then stamp your boarding pass to indicate you have completed the Secondary Security Screening. With that stamp, you are cleared to board the flight. Ensure that your boarding pass is stamped by the agent before you leave the secondary screening area. As you attempt to board you flight and the gate agent scans your boarding pass it will alarm once again. At that point they will check to make sure the TSA (or security screening, in my case) is stamped on your boarding pass. If your boarding pass does not have it then they will have to call the TSA to the gate.

What Can You Do If You Are Targeted for SSSS

If a passenger feels they were unfairly targeted, they can file a complaint directly with The Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS-TRIP). I would not suggest doing this if you get an SSSS just once. You might consider this if you get two or more of these stamps in a short period of time; you may be on a watch list, although perhaps erroneously. Again, it could be that your name is similar to another individual who is on a watch list for a valid reason; getting your name disassociated would be a good thing for future travels.

Remedies or Potential Future Solution

Another option would be to apply for a Redress Number. Once approved and you receive your Redress Number you can have that number added within your frequent flyer account. Once that’s done it will be noted on your future flights. 

Global Entry and TSA PreCheck may not prevent that SSSS from appearing on your boarding pass; although it should make it a rarity.

TSA PreCheck is not a guarantee you won’t get SSSS

If you are interested in getting Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, you might want to consider a credit card which offers a credit for the fee associated with the two programs.

Which Credit Cards Offer Global Entry or TSA PreCheck Benefits?

While the two programs are relatively affordable, some travel credit cards offer an application fee credit for one or either program as a card benefit. Credit cards that offer this perk include:

You get this benefit every four years. That’s just in time to renew your Global Entry membership or six months before you can renew your TSA Precheck membership. However, some credit cards offer the fee rebate every five years. Make sure you check the details with each card.

Some Credit Cards Offer TSA PreCheck or Global Entry Benefits

Last Thoughts…

It’s important to remember that most people selected to receive the SSSS are for valid reasons. Generally that’s the case, but of course things can happen and there are random selections. I would not be too concerned if it only happens once. Keep a positive attitude and understand this system is designed to protect; but mistakes can happen with any system and I have listed a couple of remedies.

Have You Received an SSSS on Your Boarding Pass? Domestic or International? What Was Your Experience?

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

26 comments
5

Related Articles

26 comments

compspy February 13, 2019 - 1:28 pm

Its clearly seems this article is coming from someone who have gotten once or twice in their live or just read other sources. I have a TSA PreCheck and getting SSSS consistently when coming from overseas during a checking in to the United States. Once in the US I get my TSA pre check, therefore I can predict with 100% accuracy when I will receive SSSS. As far as TRIP process, its pointless and got me nowhere.
Also when I travel with my spouse I just hand her all my stuff in front of agents eyes, and they see that I have nothing and let me thru very fast.

Reply
Miles Jackson February 13, 2019 - 4:13 pm

Hi COMPSPY,
As mentioned I’ve only gotten the SSSS twice in the past few years. I’m not sure why you are consistently getting this yourself. But thank you for the data point on your experience with the DHS’ TRIP process. I know that has to be frustrating.

Reply
Dotti July 2, 2019 - 11:23 am

I got the SSSS in AMS via KLM( not my fav airline). We were on upgrade list but told could not upgrade the xxtra security the. Told all given away! We were prem seats but got demoted to Econ horrible seating
Never KLM again they do not treat codeshare clients well

Reply
Miles Jackson July 2, 2019 - 4:40 pm

Dotti,
Thank you for sharing your experience. I cringe when reading tales such as yours. Unfortunately, there is no way to reason with the airlines over many issues (such as upgrades and even sometimes loading your luggage onto the plane) while SSSS looms on your boarding pass. Hoping for better travel days and experiences for you. Thanks again!

Reply
Mfb123 February 13, 2019 - 1:55 pm

Back in the mid 2000s I was getting SSSS frequently. But in the past ten years (or more), I haven’t received it once. It’s strange because by my own admission, I have strange travel patterns (frequent trips to the Middle East and SE Asia, one way tickets, p2p connections in tertiary Countries, etc). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining but things like this never seem to work in my favor. I’d love to know why but I think it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie

Reply
Miles Jackson February 13, 2019 - 4:14 pm

MFB123,

SSSS is one of the mysteries which (often) seems to have no rhyme or reason. Thank you for adding your experiences here…Let’s hope you continue to experience an ‘SSSS-free’ traveling experience.

Reply
Lara S. February 13, 2019 - 2:47 pm

I have Global Entry and never got SSSS before I got it and now have gotten SSSS three times in the last 15 months or so. I am not sure why. Once it was a pain where they made a bunch of us almost miss our flights (Frankfurt airport I think) they were so excruciatingly detailed and meticulous in looking through every item in my bags. It didn’t help that it was not that close to the gate and we had to stop at a transit type desk first and then get personally escorted to a special screening area, and then go to the gate area (which again, you have zero idea how long these things will take and if you are in transit you may not even have your boarding pass yet and it may be a surprise to you if you’ve got a tight connection). In Tokyo (NRT) it was an easy, quick pat down by a very gentle woman, and a likewise quick but relatively thorough check of my carryons and it was next to the gate area. Last time was Mexico City and also not very intrusive and right next to the gate. So kind of strange but I do travel to some unusual places for work so maybe wherever I’ve been lately has been a more targeted region (mostly Africa) than other places I have been focused in the past (Middle East, Latin America and Central Asia). Though I am not sure how!

Reply
Miles Jackson February 13, 2019 - 4:18 pm

Hi LARA S.,
Agreed that transiting can be a huge hassle if SSSS comes into play. I recently had a family member miss their flight because of your exact ‘tight connection’ scenario. Unfortunately, they ended up having to overnight at a nearby hotel and catch the same flight the following day.

Reply
HGA February 13, 2019 - 5:25 pm

The only airport I get SSSS’d at is MAD and it occurs about 3/4 of the time. I log more than 130K in Int’l each year yet happens nowhere else in Europe or Asia or in the Americas- not even in other airports in Spain such as BCN. Coincidentally enough, it is one of the few Int’l cities I visit family in. Some of the agents who handle you at the end of Terminal 2 in MAD to clear your SSSS are very unprofessional. I had to call a supervisor the last time bc the lady wanted me to open a book that was wrapped with brown paper and transparent shipping tape (had been shipped to me in Spain). I explained that I could not tear the tape as I had nothing sharp (not allowed through xray). She wanted to confiscate my book! I had to call a DL Red Coat and her supervisor to resolve the situation. The DL Red Coat had to come with scissors (yes she had scissors in the secure area) to cut through the tape so the book could be inspected!

Reply
Robb March 6, 2019 - 9:03 pm

I received SSSS in December 2018 after booking SYD-ORD via LAX ~3 weeks out. No issues getting through regular security, no GE offered or similar at SYD. Once the gate area opened for my AA flight within the terminal (US bound flights have ad-hoc segregated waiting areas at SYD) I was directed to the back of the area where they had setup a temp security screening area. Each passenger was asked to handover their passport and boarding pass and take a seat, we were then called up when it was our turn. The screeners had us open our bags, remove all electronics, and they then swabbed most of the bag & electronics for drugs, explosives, etc. Once completed we were free to rejoin the rest of the passengers waiting to board.

I had an LAX-ORD flight that I wasnt able to reprint my boarding pass to take advantage of TSA Pre-Check, I didnt try as the normal line transferring between international and domestic terminals was nearly empty (we arrived at 6am local time).

Reply
Miles Jackson March 12, 2019 - 10:15 pm

Robb,
I would be hesitant to hand over my passport where it would be held out of my sight.

Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us.

Reply
Scott sikon March 17, 2019 - 7:57 am

On return flight from buenos Aires to Newark I had the dreaded SSSS listed on my boarding pass. This is despite having Global Entry. During screening the machine came back with a positive test, however, after that the machine would not work so the machine was clearly not functioning properly. A lot of hassle. Fortunately I was in the first boarding group so I had time but to me, there is no way they could select someone in a later boarding group since there is no time e to perform search before flight.
Worst part was I also was denied TSA pre on connection in newark.
Global entry is supposed to make it possible to avoid this rigmarole.

Reply
Miles Jackson March 17, 2019 - 8:10 am

Scott sikon-
Thank you for sharing your experience south of the border. Unfortunately, as you found out, Global Entry does not prevent the SSSS. There have been many reports from travelers with Global Entry to suggest it may increase your chances of getting the shuddersome letters on your boarding pass.
Some passengers who are farther down the boarding queue may be afforded more time to complete the secondary interview and catch up to their boarding zone. It really would depend on how the process is conducted.

Reply
Wayne May 11, 2019 - 12:29 pm

Over the past two years five of my friends have joined me on a total of ten Aero Mexico mileage runs from the US to LIM and to UIO. Each of us has received the dreaded SSSS once when connecting in MEX. In my case I had picked up LIM-MEX and MEX-ORD boarding passes at the ticket counter in LIM.
Before boarding commences SSSS passengers in MEX are called to the counter at the boarding gate. After producing boarding documents they are directed to a table and chair on the boarding ramp. Because this occurs before boarding commences there is virtually no delay for SSSS passengers provided they are at the gate prior to start of boarding. The enhanced screening takes 8 – 10 minutes. It involves a pat down, removal of ones shoes, a chemical screening for traces of dangerous substances, a thorough inspection of the contents of ones carry on, and sixty seconds of questions asked in variety of forms in an effort to determine if the SSSS traveler has been truthful.
In MEX it appears as if three or four passengers per flight receive enhanced screening.

Reply
Miles Jackson May 11, 2019 - 1:00 pm

Thank you Wayne for sharing your experience with Mexico City airport’s enhanced screening procedures. Sounds like you had a pretty smooth, non-eventful experience. That’s always good if you are going to get the SSSS screening anyway.

Got to love those Mileage Runs. Some of those were pretty lucrative.

Thanks for reading.

Reply
Wayne May 11, 2019 - 12:57 pm

Rumor has it if you are randomly selected for SSSS screening you may be able to cancel it by calling the airline and getting yourself unchecked for your flight. If anyone has tried this please let us know if it’s true.

Reply
Dots July 25, 2019 - 9:46 pm

Last time the dreaded SSSS on BP was in AMS
Took forever with additional @&$(;screwing with all of the stuff out of my bag on a large table and of course everything I had with me was ++ for residue they had to call supervisors
Then we lost our upgrades not a great KLM experience

Reply
Miles Jackson July 25, 2019 - 9:57 pm

Dots-
It’s always tough when you lose an upgrade to something out of your control. Hopefully you don’t blame KLM; it’s out of their hands. Here’s to hoping you avoid those SSSS’s in the future and enjoy lots more upgrades! Thank you for your comments.

Reply
Meredith Littles August 4, 2019 - 8:51 am

Just experienced it In Canada. My husband goes on all the same trips as me and never has any issues. I enjoy traveling but I’m starting to get pissed. I’m a mom of 7 and a police officer. I get flagged all the time .

Reply
Miles Jackson August 4, 2019 - 5:41 pm

Hi Meredith,
I’m sorry to hear that you got the dreaded SSSS. Did your occupation as a police officer come up during the secondary interview? Do you think it helped you through the process?

Reply
Elizabeth K. Hart October 6, 2019 - 10:44 pm

My friend and I were traveling from Ukraine and connecting through Vienna back to the US. We both were pulled out for the SSSS. She was lucky that they at least called her an hour before the flight. They pulled me out of the line as we boarding the plane. I had Global Entry and thought that might help (NO) — great stress wondering if I would make the flight. They also broke my cell phone case taking it off. I was the last person to board the plane. We can only assume it was because from Ukraine.

Reply
Miles Jackson October 6, 2019 - 11:08 pm

Hi Elizabeth K. Hart-
That’s unsettling, to say the least, if you get pulled out during the boarding process! I wonder if you and your companion were flying under the same PNR, although it may make no difference to DHS. Hmmm?

Reply
J. Nazario October 10, 2019 - 10:47 am

Thank you for such a great website. It answered many questions I had. Yesterday, I took a flight back to MIA, USA from Barcelona. One of the subcontracted workers noticed that I had the SSSS LETTERS on my boarding ticket when I was ready to board. My husband did not. So, I had to go to the secondary inspection. my husband refused to go on the plane until I was done with the inspection. Anyways, a lady checked my laptop and asked me to take off the cover to perform a swipe. Everything went fine. What I did not like was that I was not told by the counter person when she handed the ticket to me about it. I would have gone to the secondary security point as soon as getting past passport. I got to the airport at 05:30 am for a 09:40 flight to the USA. AA did not even had the usual queue barriers posts for the check-in. I also have Global entry for years and it never happen to me. The secondary security checkpoint was a chaotic as mostly no-one knew why they were there. You had to the people who were last in order to figure out the order. At least the lady that took care of me was very amiable and someone came around asking who was in the AA flight bound to MIA. Again they should let you know at the counter at least as a courtesy. Very bad organization.

Reply
Miles Jackson October 10, 2019 - 4:23 pm

Hi J. Nazario-
Thanks for sharing your experience with us. As you’ve learned, Global Entry won’t be able to prevent a traveler from getting the SSSS on their boarding pass.

Reply
Janet K October 24, 2019 - 6:46 am

I just came back to the US from Munich through Vancouver, BC. I printed my boarding passes for both flights at a kiosk in Munich. After going through customs and the regular security, I had been waiting at the gate for about an hour when my name was called. I was told I had been selected for additional screening. When the TSA agent came up she chastised me for not getting the additional screen as I came through security, even though my boarding pass didn’t have the ssss code on it. She gave me a new boarding pass with the ssss code on it. How was I supposed to know when my boarding pass didn’t have this code! How is one to know if the code is added after their boarding pass is printed? She continued to berate me and tell me I could miss my flight because I had “the wrong boarding pass”. She then took me to an isolated gate, with one other TSA agent and passenger for the screening. It was late in the evening and was unsettling to be so isolated. Had I known better, I would have had my husband at least come to the hallway outside the gate to witness.

Reply
Miles Jackson October 24, 2019 - 6:54 am

Hi Janet K –
This is the first time I have heard of the kiosk providing a boarding pass when SSSS was ‘supposed’ to be there. Usually a guaranteed sign that you are getting SSSS is often when the kiosk refuse to print a boarding pass and instruct you to see an agent at the check-in counter. I’m sorry to hear you had this happen, but at the same time thank you for sharing for our readers.

Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

BoardingArea

Point Me Awake

  

A morning jolt of travel-infused news & deals straight to your inbox. 

 

Success! Check your email for a welcome onboard message