What does SSSS on your boarding pass mean?


Travelling by air - then take a look at your boarding pass and hope you don’t find SSSS printed on it. Here’s what it means and why it could signal big problems for your flight.

SSSS code on a boarding passFinding an SSSS code on your boarding pass could spell trouble for your trip (Credit: Definitelynotdodgy)

What is an SSSS boarding pass code and what does it mean?

The code only applies to travellers flying to and from the US. The SSSS code stands for “Secondary Security Screening Selection’. It is also obligatory for all passengers from certain countries. 

How does the SSSS affect my flight and how long does it delay me by?

Travellers with SSSS printed on their boarding pass have been selected for extra security screening by airport security. This means measures such as searches of hand luggage, pat-downs and being subject to scanners. Passengers will be swabbed for residue of illegal substances – such as drugs or explosives. It’s likely the passenger will also face additional questioning over travel plans and previous trips. Making sure you arrive in good time for all flights to or from the US should mean the delays will be minimal. Travellers have reported the additional security measures that come with an SSSS code, will add between 15 and 45 minutes to the security check. 

Why would I get an SSSS code on my boarding pass?

The scheme was put in place by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after the 911 attacks. It’s just one of the many mechanics in operation helping to make aviation safe for all of us. The use of the code is not just restricted to US airports or US travellers, anyone heading to or from the US could find an SSSS code printed on their boarding pass.

Reasons that could see passengers put on the SSSS list include:

  • Travelling on a one-way ticket
  • Paying for a ticket in cash
  • Simply being picked at random
  • Feature on a security watchlist

How can I check if I am going to get an SSSS code?

Passengers can’t check ahead, but it’s said that if the system prevents a traveller from printing their boarding pass in advance, then they may expect an SSSS on when it’s printed at the terminal. However, there is no official confirmation this is the case, and there are many other reason why it may not be possible to print a boarding card at home.
Another red flag that you might be about to receive an SSSS code on your boarding pass could be finding yourself unable to self check-in kiosks at the airport. However, once again, there could be other reasons for this, so don't panic just yet.

Should I be worried about getting an SSSS code on my boarding pass?

Providing the passenger has nothing to hide, the SSSS code will simply be an inconvenience that is likely to add 10-30 minutes to the transition through airport security. However, if you receive the same code the next time you fly, there is a good chance that you have found your way on to an official watchlist for some reason. 
There are around 23,000 people on watchlists, according to Margaret Gilmore, an expert in counter-terrorism at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in an interview with the BBC. You can't just ring up the security services and ask why, but it is unlikely that law-abiding travellers will find themselves on such a list. It is also worth remembering that British agencies will share their lists with trusted partners, explaining why you may find yourself with an SSSS code issued by the TSA.

Will I always get and SSSS code on my boarding card after having one?

If you find yourself on an official watchlist for some reason, it is likely that you will always see the SSSS code on your boarding card, meaning extra security scrutiny will be ongoing if travelling by air. However, if the code was just a random security check, then you should not expect to receive the same next time you fly. However, having had the SSSS once - and not being on a watchlist - does not automatically exclude you from ever having it appear again.

So, what should I do?

Just arrive up 30-40 minutes early, while remaining polite and patient. This should see you ready to fly with plenty of time to spare
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Author: Pete Barden:

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Pete Barden is a qualified journalist who has written and produced for publications including The Sun (thesun.co.uk), New Statesman Media Group, Whatcar? (Whatcar.com) Stuff Magazine (Stuff.tv), Fastcar Magazine (Fastcar.co.uk), Maxim Magazine and UK broadcast stations within the Heart network (Formerly GCAP). Pete specialises in motoring and travel content, along with news and production roles. You can find out more about Pete Barden on LinkedIn.

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