By: Sarah Stone
Have you gotten pulled aside for additional screening while in the security line at the airport?
You may have had “SSSS” stamped on your boarding pass.
“SSSS” on your plane ticket stands for “Secondary Security Screening Selection,” and it means you’ve been chosen for additional checks of your body and carry-ons.
What Additional Screening Can You Expect?
When you go through the security checkpoint at the airport without additional screening, you’ll:
- Put your carry-ons, shoes, and whatever you have in your pockets through an x-ray
- Go through a body scanner or metal detector—if the scanner has flagged anything, you might get a short pat or swipe of that spot and be sent on your way (assuming you’re not carrying a knife or something else you shouldn’t be carrying!)
If you’ve got “SSSS” printed on your boarding pass, then there are a few extra steps that TSA will take for additional screening.
They’ll ask you to step out of the security line and—either in an area off to the side, or a private screening room if you request it—you’ll likely need to completely unpack your carry-ons and get a full-body pat-down.
You may also have your hands and bags swabbed to detect traces of explosive substances. You’ll need to turn on any electronic devices, like cameras and laptops, and you may need to answer a couple of questions about your travel plans.
All in all, it usually takes just a couple of minutes depending on how busy the TSA agents are. Sometimes you’ll need to wait around a bit—in my experience it’s never been more than maybe 20 minutes from being pulled aside to being sent on my way.
It may sound a bit scary or at least intimidating, but…I’ve actually gotten the dreaded “SSSS” on my boarding passes so often that I kind of expect it, and it’s never been an uncomfortable or truly negative undertaking. As long as you’re polite and do what the agent asks, it’s just a somewhat robotic process that slows you down a bit.
A note about the pat-down: in my experience, it’s been very quick and very respectful, with the agent telling me everything they’re doing and where they’re going to be placing or swiping their hands, and how their palms will be facing. With that said, my comfort level with a pat-down may be very different from yours. For more information about the pat-down and other screening procedures, please read this page.
Why Would You Get “SSSS” On Your Boarding Pass?
That part is a little bit of a mystery, and there are a lot of different reasons you might get “SSSS” printed on your plane ticket. TSA doesn’t outright tell you what would lead to having this designation, but here are a few reasons that have been reported:
- Being on a watchlist, or having the same name as someone who is on a watchlist
- Purchasing a last-minute ticket, purchasing a ticket with cash, or taking one-way flights
- Traveling from specific countries
- Completely random selection
In my case, I country- and state-hopped every few months for years, and almost always purchased one-way tickets—for example, I traveled from Florida to California, then from California to Montreal, then from Montreal to Virginia, then from Virginia to Porto, and so on.
I also carried a fair amount of electronics with me, including two laptops and two GoPros—while I’m not sure whether that had any bearing on being pulled aside, it was something that I’d at least have to build in time for, because I needed to turn on each device at screening and show that they worked as intended. I also had to set up parts of the camera gear, like mounting the GoPro to its tripod.
The result of all of this was that for years, I was pulled aside for extra screening many, many times.
How Can You Avoid Having “SSSS” On Your Boarding Pass?
Since there are random checks, there’s no way to totally ensure that you’ll never have “SSSS” printed on your airline ticket for additional screening.
And while Global Entry and TSA PreCheck can for sure make it easier for you to travel from place to place and bypass long security checkpoints, it’s not a guarantee that you won’t be pulled aside at some point.
The best advice I can give:
First, try not to take lots of one-way flights, or book multiple flights with very short notice, or pay in cash for your bookings—sometimes that can’t be avoided though, so if you think you have a reason you’ll be pulled aside for extra screening, try your best to build in that additional time into your trip planning.
Second, get to the airport way earlier than you think you should. Even if you have everything in order, it doesn’t mean the experience will go smoothly. Sometimes you’ll get stuck behind families and groups that can massively slow down the security line. Or something weird will happen—a few months ago while flying from Miami, my state ID got flagged as damaged, and I hadn’t updated my married name on my passport yet to match it. Getting my identity sorted out took about a half-hour, and was totally unexpected!
And finally, be polite! Don’t get angry or belligerent, even if you’re frustrated and afraid you’ll miss your flight. If you act like a jerk, you just make the situation worse for everybody.
If you’ve gotten the famous “SSSS” on your boarding pass, don’t panic! There may be a dumb or totally random reason it’s there. Just take a breath, know you’ll be delayed a little bit in getting to your gate, and follow the directions that the agents will walk you through, and you’ll be on your way with no trouble!
Travel friends: have you been as “lucky” as I have and gotten pulled aside for additional screening? What has your experience been like? What advice would you give to fellow travelers?
Share your thoughts and stories with the Frayed Passport community!
About the AuthorAs the managing director of Frayed Passport, my goal is to help you build a lifestyle that lets you travel the world whenever you want and however long you want, and not worry about where your next paycheck will come from. I've been to 20+ countries and five continents, lived for years as a full-time digital nomad, and have worked completely remotely since 2015. If you would like to share your story with our community, or partner with Frayed Passport, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Featured photo by Joshua Woroniecki from Pixabay