If you are a frequent traveler the process of going through security screening at the airport has probably become fairly routine. But if you are one of the lucky travelers who find SSSS printed on their boarding pass, what has become repetitive can quickly throw a wrench into your travel plans. And if you are blissfully unfamiliar with this designation and the process that follows it can become a nightmare. This was my situation at Paris’, Charles de Gaul International Airport.
This article will familiarize you with what the letters SSSS on a passenger’s boarding pass means, how you may know before arriving at the airport that you could see the dreaded SSSS on your ticket, what you can expect if 4Ss appear on your boarding card, and what your recourse is so you can avoid being singled out for future trips.
What it means if SSSS is printed on your boarding pass
If you find your boarding pass has SSSS printed in the upper left corner of your ticket it means you have been “randomly” chosen for Secondary Security Screening Selection. This isn’t the arbitrary selection that you may have experienced in the past at the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security line prior to entering the terminal. Most travelers, even those with TSA Pre-check have experienced this extra bit of security where you need to go undergo a full-body scan rather than simply passing through the metal detector.
SSSS, sometimes referred to as a “quad” is an additional airport security measure taken with high-risk passengers as determined by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This assignment means you will undergo extra screening prior to boarding. While you are more likely to be tagged with the dreaded 4Ss during international travel and when entering the United States, it can happen on domestic (US) flights as well.
TSA Precheck does not guarantee you will not be flagged for additional screening. Nor does Global Entry.
Here’s my gripe about that. If I’ve spent the extra money for TSA Pre-check and gone through the screening process which includes being fingerprinted, it seems that DHS should have enough background to have denied me this privilege if I’m not a good candidate and not have taken my money. (Rant over.)
However, the letter you receive with your Known Traveler Number (KTN aka TSA Precheck) states that it can be revoked for any number of reasons.
How will I know if I’ve been targeted as a Secondary Security Screening Selectee?
You won’t necessarily know in advance particularly if you are unfamiliar with the label. But there are a few things to look for that might give you an early warning before and soon after arriving at the airport.
You may not be able to check-in online
If you continually receive an error message when trying to check in online, this may be the first indication that you have been designated a selectee. But there are a number of other reasons this could happen. If this happens it’s a good idea to arrive at the airport early to allow for additional body scans including a trip through the full-body scanner.
Both my husband and I were unable to check-in for our flights out of Paris yet only I had the SSSS. We assumed the system was down or something minor was preventing us from completing the task. This seemed especially likely since our tickets were booked separately, on different receipts. This makes clear there are other issues that could prevent you from completing the online check-in process
On domestic flights, this may be slightly different. Rather than getting a general error message when doing your online check-in, you may be instructed to check in at the ticketing desk. But don’t expect the ticketing agent to tell you that you are on the SSSS list.
You may have trouble checking in using the kiosks at the airport
If you are like me and find you are unable to check in online you will likely head to the kiosk to complete the task. But when I scanned my passport, a screen came up informing me I needed assistance from an American Airline representative. Once I found one, she came to my kiosk and swiped her badge, and entered a code. No problem. I was able to proceed from there.
Once we checked in and printed our boarding passes, we moved on to the counter and checked our bags. Then onward to security. I had no issues at security other than the usual activation of the scanner because of my hip replacement. Throughout the process, no one mentioned anything about the SSSS designation on my boarding pass.
What to Look for on Your Boarding Pass
Once you have your boarding pass in hand, if you are observant, you will know you have been selected as you will see SSSS printed in bold letters in the upper left corner and lower right corners of your ticket.
While it may seem like “SSSS” screaming out like a flashing neon sign might be hard to miss, they are actually fairly easy to overlook particularly if you are traveling internationally or do not have TSA Pre-check.
On domestic flights, if you have TSA-Pre-check the first thing you probably do is confirm that “TSA Pre-check” has been printed on your ticket. But on international flights, there’s no reason to review this. So, regardless of where your travels take you, always be sure to closely review your boarding pass.
Why you might have been given the SSSS designation
It’s hard to know specifically why I or anyone else gets selected. Though I was told this was a “random screening,” based on what I have read, it may not be as random as the airlines say. There are a number of reasons it could happen including being put on a watch list.
But it is more likely that your name has been mismatched with a name similar to someone on the No-Fly List. In my case, this seems likely since I was flying from Paris and I have a ridiculously French name. My name is also hyphenated which frequently causes issues.
Other possible reasons include open-ended or one-way flights. Again, I could have fallen into this category as we had flown into London and were departing from France.
Last-minute flights, unusual travel patterns, and travel to a destination that the US government may consider a high-risk country could raise red flags. Again, this may have led to me being singled out as I had recently made a number of trips to Mexico and I’ve also had visits to the Middle East, including Egypt and Turkey.
What to expect during the SSSS screening process
From what I have read and from my own experience it seems that the process differs a bit between international travel and domestic (US) travel. I will tell you about my personal experience traveling from Paris to the US. What I’ve written about what you can expect on a domestic flight is based on research.
On Domestic Flights
It seems that on domestic flights, the entire process of secondary screening will occur at the TSA checkpoint. When you check in with the TSA agent you may hear him or her tell their colleague that they have a “quad.” This indicates to the coworker that you are on the selectee list and require additional scrutiny.
Rather than simply passing through the metal detector you will be instructed to go through the full-body scanner. Additionally, you will likely get a pat-down from a TSA agent of your same gender.
Finally, you will be asked to remove everything from your carry-on bags. You will then be instructed to power up all your electronics. The officer will take what looks a bit like an alcohol pad and wipe down all your components and your shoes. The swab has a chemical that reacts if it comes in contact with explosive residue.
Once you have made it over these hurdles you will be allowed to move on to your departure gate.
During International Travel
The process I underwent in Paris was a bit different from the process I just laid out for Domestic flights. By the time I knew that I had been singled out for the Secondary Security Screening Selection I was already at my departure gate. I had undergone all the preliminary security screenings including having had my carry-on x-rayed and passing through the metal detectors.
While I waited to board my flight, I heard my name called over the intercom with the instructions to see an agent at the departure gate.
When I arrived at the desk the gate agent looked at my boarding pass and told me, “You’ve been randomly selected for additional screening. Please follow me.” She then escorted me away from my husband with no other explanation, to a holding area away from the waiting area at the gate. Here, the representative puts me in the queue and tells me to wait until I am called.
There were makeshift stations with security personnel. At those stations, they had passengers removing all their electronics from their carry-on bags as well as removing shoes and belts. Like on domestic flights, the officer swabs these items to check for explosive residue.
In Paris, I did not see anyone undergo additional scrutinies such as an extra pat-down or further questioning but I suppose that happens if there is a reason for suspicion.
Once the security officer completes the process you are instructed to put your belonging back in your bag and board the plane. You will not be permitted to return to the departure gate to rejoin your companion(s).
This can be a bit disconcerting. I wasn’t sure what my husband had been told. If anything. I wondered if he would know to board the plane. Your party will be advised of what is happening and instructed to board when it is time.
All this may seem obvious or trivial but at the moment, I can assure you nothing seems standard. I admit this might be a byproduct of being a female traveler.
Is Secondary Security Screening Selection truly random?
As for the randomness of the selection, if it were truly random it would be a one-time thing or at least quite rare, just like when you are singled out during routine TSA screenings. But, apparently, the boarding pass SSSS designation can follow you from one trip to another. For this reason, it is recommended that on future flights you allow extra time at the airport.
Is SSSS Permanent? And, what’s the process for getting it removed?
The answer to this isn’t straightforward. But if you believe that you have been assigned to the list in error, the good news is, you can dispute it following your trip. But the first time you will need to go through the process.
At your first opportunity, head to the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) website. Here you can file a dispute. It’s a relatively simple form that asks you to supply some documentation, including a copy of your boarding pass (if you have it) and a copy of your passport or other picture identification.
Once you have submitted the documents for your case to be reviewed and have received a redress number, you wait for a response. With any luck, it’s no big deal and they remove it. Case closed. However, you may never know why you were branded with the SSSS designation.
What you can expect from the Redress process
The Redress process is less than efficient. On the website, you can check the status of your submission. However, in my case, the online system told me that they needed further documentation which I had already submitted. I uploaded the documents again but continued to see the same message. What I am saying is I’m not sure how successful you will be in checking the status of your redress.
After a couple more weeks with no updates from the Department of Homeland Security, I emailed them. This wasn’t particularly helpful as they didn’t respond for several months. This came as no surprise but I figured it was worth a shot.
When I finally heard from DHS they informed me they had received my redress application and documentation. I was assured my application would be processed in the order received.
Getting an answer to your Redress
Roughly 7 months later I received a “case closed” email. Keep in mind I went through this process before Covid–19. I have no idea what you can expect now in terms of timing.
Here are the main points of the correspondence I received.
“DHS TRIP can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information. We have found that about 2% of the DHS TRIP complainants actually have some connection to the Terrorist Watchlist. Complaints most often arise either because the traveler’s name and personal information are similar to the name and personal information of another person (sic) or because the traveler has been delayed in travel for reasons unrelated to such data, such as by random screening.”
The email goes on to give these tips for future travel:
“1. When traveling by air to or within the United States, DHS recommends that you provide your redress control number (located at the top of this letter) when making your reservations. Providing this information will help prevent misidentifications from occurring during security checks against government records and other information. In most online reservation systems, your redress control number may be entered at the same time you enter your full name and date of birth.
2. When entering the United States from abroad, no additional action is required. Where appropriate, as a result of the redress process, DHS employs a procedure to correct the information used to process travelers at the ports of entry that reduces the chance of misidentifications occurring.”
And finally, they say, “Despite these positive efforts, we cannot ensure your travel will be delay-free.”
Will you continue to see SSSS on your boarding pass for future travel?
Once again, it’s hard to say whether this will be a reoccurring issue. Some people have reported having been singled out multiple times for this procedure. In fact, in writing this it occurred to me that I may have had this happen once domestically as well as the international incident (yes, that’s a bit of a funny).
I wish I had better answers here. But I think so much of this varies on a case-by-case basis.
I just rechecked my boarding pass (which I was surprised I hadn\’t tossed) and it does have the SSSS on it…
I just went through this leaving Paris though it wasn\’t designated as ssss just \”get to the gate at least 1 hour early\”. My first clue was the inability to get a boarding pass online. The second came when they let me check a bag for free with some vague reference I didn\’t understand but later realized was that it would make the double check process easier. I do have Global Entry, but my original flight was canceled, so technically this was a last minute one way change. My husband however, went through without issue. On the full 787 flight they rechecked at least a dozen passengers, maybe two dozen. Flew to and from London last fall without incident, so hoping this is a one time deal.
It\’s a dreadful experience and so many people are unaware of this protocol. Go through the redress process and try to get it removed. It is my understanding that most people who do this will have the designation removed.
I’ve been having the same experience for years before I realized I have that SSSS tag. I kept getting reinspected and being told it’s security procedure. I went online and researched why the repeated security checks and that’s how I learned about it. It’s not random, your permanently listed on their Terrorist List and you will be stopped and rechecked every time you travel internationally. I’m a frequent traveler and I get checked twice or three times. A sticker is also placed at the back of my passport so I have so many of them already.
I\’m really sorry this keeps happening to you. Thankfully, for me it was a one-time occurance. If you haven\’t gone through the process of filing a redress I encourage you to give it a shot. It\’s a bit of an inconvenience but not as much as the constant extra scrutiny of the SSSS.
It just happened to me (getting stopped for the SSSS additional security check) at the Mexico City airport when I was about to board my Delta flight back to JFK. I\’m 65 and have traveled a lot internationally and it has never happened to me before. I actually feel traumatized by it. Another disturbing thing was that they told my husband not to stop to wait for me, but to go on and board the plane. I am trying to get a redress number now, but the link the DHS sent me has been identified by Google as dangerous and my information could be stolen. So…what to do? I\’m sure I\’ll calm down about it, but I\’m planning to go to Egypt soon and don\’t want problems there.
Dorothy, I\’m sorry this happened to you. Go through the process and hopefully it will get resolved. Be patient. I know passports are taking much longer than they should right now. I expect the same is true of this process.
I also found the experience traumatizing and they told my husband to board as well. I had another story on this site that was a tongue-in-cheek account of what happened and how it felt. It didn\’t get a lot of readers and I took it off the site. After reading your comment I think I might add it back as it might be helpful to some. Best of luck and happy travels. Egypt is amazing!!
That was so informative. I never knew about this process and I\’m so relieved to know that you didn\’t have to go through a lot of trouble due to this.
I\’m glad you found this informative. I hope you never need to go through this but if you do you won\’t be alarmed.
Thank you for sharing this, I never knew! So informative.
I\’m glad you found it informative and I hope you never need this information.
Thank you for describing the process, greatly appreciated. I had the SSSS on my boarding pass to fly home but didn’t notice it until after I was separated from my family in Munich when returning from a lovely Christmas vacation in France. I had to remove my shoes and had my carryon bag searched again. It would’ve been ok if the security people weren’t speaking in German and laughing while I waited as they went through my belongings. I have been flying since I was 2 and I’m a senior citizen now, never experienced this before even after 9/11.
That is understandable. That was part of my panic as well. Not knowing the language really leaves you in the dark. I hope you are able to get this resolved and resume travel as usual.
Thank you for sharing what happened to you, I had no idea about SSSS!! Sounds like it was a bit of a pain but I\’m glad it seems to have worked out in the end.
I think most people don\’t know about it. Even the most seasoned traveler.
Oh wow! I didn\’t even realise SSSS was a thing! I\’m going to be so curious to check my ticket next time I fly! Thank you for writing about it 🙂
Once you know about it, you will start looking for it but until then, not so much.