What It Means When You Have “SSSS” on Your Boarding Pass

First class or coach, travelers can earn this inconvenient designation on any flight, international or domestic.

What It Means When You Have “SSSS” on Your Boarding Pass

Some boarding passes will print with SSSS on them.

Photo by Borkazoid/Flickr

Ah, the dreaded SSSS.

The first time your boarding pass randomly prints with SSSS, you might be confused, or even want to believe you’ve won something special. Unfortunately, those letters mean something much different.

What is SSSS?

SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection, and signals that you’ve been chosen for additional checks from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). These screenings can come in the form of pat-downs, extra luggage inspections, swabs for explosives and more—and you’re likely going to spend about 15-45 minutes longer than expected in airport security.

Why did I get SSSS on my boarding pass? Is it actually random?

Yes and no. According to TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy, SSSS appears on a passenger’s boarding pass when they have been selected by the agency’s Secure Flight system for enhanced security screening. Secure Flight is a risk-based passenger prescreening program that improves security by identifying low- and high-risk passengers before they arrive at the airport. The program does this by matching passengers’ names against trusted traveler lists and watchlists.

To protect privacy, the Secure Flight program collects the minimum amount of personal information—full name, date of birth, and gender—necessary to conduct effective matching. It also prevents individuals on the Terrorist Watchlist, the No-Fly List, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “Do Not Board” list from boarding any aircraft

But no, getting selected for additional screening does not mean you’re a high-risk passenger, or ended up on some list—passengers are randomly selected as well. “TSA always incorporates random and unpredictable measures into its procedures that may result in a passenger receiving an SSSS designation for a single flight,” McCarthy wrote in an email. In fact, the SSSS designation can attach itself to any traveler at any time, even those who are members of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency’s Trusted Traveler Programs, like Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. And just because you get the designation once, that does not mean you’ll continue to get it for future flights.

The system picks its SSSS “winners” in an instant, but those four letters will mean an extended stay with TSA agents, so prepare yourself for a more comprehensive, albeit painless, screening process.

Rosalie Tinelli contributed reporting.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 25 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Backpacker, CNN, and Sierra. He has written and updated 13 guidebooks about Las Vegas. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.
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