What Does It Mean When You See “SSSS” on Your Boarding Pass?

What's that mysterious "SSSS" on your boarding pass? Find out what those four letters mean and how to navigate this airport security situation.

You’re standing among the bustling chaos of an airport terminal. The nerves and excitement for your next travel destination are palpable. You crane your neck to get a better look at the line approaching the airport security check. You’re not too worried—the airport wait times don’t seem bad. But as you get to the front of the line and hand over your boarding bass to a stern-faced TSA agent, a tension begins to build. You both notice the ominous “SSSS” on your boarding pass, a hiccup in your travel journey.

But what happens next? What do those four letters mean, and how did they get on your boarding pass? Here’s what you need to know about navigating this security situation.

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What does “SSSS” mean?

“Secondary Security Screening Selection (SSSS) is added to boarding passes when that traveler has been selected for additional screening procedures,” says R. Carter Langston, press secretary for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “The agency incorporates unpredictable security measures, both seen and unseen, to accomplish the transportation security mission.” According to Langston, “SSSS” may appear on a traveler’s boarding pass at random, which will lead to additional screening measures.

What additional screenings can you expect? These may include luggage inspections, pat-down screenings or swabs for explosives.

Why do you have “SSSS” on your boarding pass?

According to the TSA website, security measures for air travel start well before your arrival at the airport. The TSA works with intelligence and law enforcement agencies to share information and flag any individuals who could pose a security threat. These measures are in effect from the moment you reach the airport until you reach your final destination—and it doesn’t matter whether you’re at one of the busiest airports or most reliable airports.

But while an “SSSS” may appear on your boarding pass due to these security measures, you may also have been selected at random. Seasoned flyer and frequent international traveler Wendy Thiessen has had the dreaded “SSSS” on her boarding pass multiple times.

“I asked the person conducting the secondary screening why I always seem to be the chosen one in our family, and they were kind enough to explain that it was a random security check,” says Thiessen. “I actually felt so much better knowing it wasn’t just me looking suspicious or something more nefarious. It’s nothing you did or how you look, it’s random.”

And if you’re wondering whether pre-screening programs, such as Clear, NEXUS, Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check, prevent the “SSSS” on your boarding pass, that’s not necessarily the case. Being on these pre-approved lists does not keep you from being selected for additional screening, as security measures are designed to override these programs.

What can you expect if you have “SSSS” on your boarding pass?

TSA Officials And Delta Introduce Automated Security Screening Lanes At LaGuardia AirportSpencer Platt/Getty Images

If you discover “SSSS” on your boarding pass, you’ve been selected for additional security screening beyond the typical airport body scanner. You might have additional baggage screening to ensure you’re following TSA carry-on rules or they might swab your items for explosives.

“They [tested] everything for bomb powder residue and [did] a quick check of carry-on items,” says Thiessen, describing her own personal experience. “I have never been taken to a mysterious room or anything worrisome. Friends and family [may] be able to see the person while the secondary inspection is conducted, but they should be prepared to meet their party at the gate or further from the inspection area.”

In some situations, you may be selected for a pat-down screening. The purpose of this screening procedure is to check for concealed prohibited items or security threats on individuals. The passengers will be informed of the procedure beforehand, and the pat-down is conducted by a TSA officer of the same gender as the passenger. The TSA officer will use the back of their hands over sensitive areas, and in rare cases, they may use the front of their hand for added screening.

Can you get “SSSS” off your boarding pass?

If you have “SSSS” on your boarding pass, you cannot bypass the additional screening prior to boarding your plane.

However, travelers who are consistently selected for additional security screening and believe they are unfairly selected, can apply to the Travel Redress program, more formally referred to as the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, or DHS TRIP. Apply online and check the status of your application through the DHS TRIP portal. But remember: This program is designed for future trips and does not affect current trips with an “SSSS” boarding pass.

How common is “SSSS” on a boarding pass?

There are a variety of factors that may indicate why someone receives “SSSS” on their boarding pass. While the additional screening is often selected at random, that is not always the case. Due to the complexity of the screening, and the fact that the TSA does not publish specifics related to this security measure, it’s impossible to know exactly how common it is to receive this particular code on your boarding pass.

About the experts

  • R. Carter Langston is the press secretary at the Transportation Security Administration. He is a senior public affairs professional with more than 20 years of federal, military and private sector experience.
  • Wendy Thiessen is a seasoned traveler as the volunteer director of PiFò Haiti. She has brought many youth groups from Canada to Haiti over the past 12 years, which has led to great learning opportunities for travel and empathy for others on the journey.


Brianna Bell
Brianna Bell is a writer contributing all things bookish to Reader's Digest. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Globe & Mail, the Guardian and many other national and international publications. When she's not writing, she's reading, browsing bookstores or adding to her TBR list.