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In the US, getting the dreaded SSSS mark of Cain on your boarding pass has well known consequences, with the TSA singling you out for an extra level of attention.

But what happens when you get one on your way to the US, while you're still beyond the reach of the TSA's loving latex gloves?

Update: My expectation when asking this was that there's a standard set of requirements imposed by the US. I'm somewhat surprised to find out that this doesn't appear to be the case...!

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  • My wife got this on a flight from Munich to Newark last summer, but the flight was cancelled, so we never found out. She is usually selected for TSA pre-check despite not belonging to any trusted traveler program. It's truly bewildering.
    – phoog
    Jan 28, 2019 at 1:57
  • @phoog She's probably middle age or older. When the lines are light they tend to send older passengers through pre-check. Doesn't stop them from giving my wife (naturalized citizen) SSSS most of the time on flights to the US, though. Do they think she's Jekyll and Hyde?? Jan 28, 2019 at 5:13
  • 2
    useful link for non-US people: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secondary_Security_Screening_Selection Jan 28, 2019 at 7:03
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    @fkraiem anecdotal evidence is one of the purposes of this site.
    – phoog
    Jan 28, 2019 at 10:55
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    How can a question with four answers totaling eleven upvotes have only one upvote itself?
    – phoog
    Jan 28, 2019 at 11:00

5 Answers 5

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As a result of seemingly being put on some form of US list, for a period of time I was given SSSS on my boarding pass every single time I flew into the US (until I went through the DHS Traveler Redress program at which point it stopped). Between that and a few random times, I have received SSSS on my boarding pass for flights into the US around 10 times.

In every case except one I was subject to additional security checks, although exactly what those checks were depended on the airport I was flying from. In general it ranged from a minimum of an explosives swap of my hands and my luggage, through being scanned with a personal metal detector wand, up to them opening and looking at my carry-on luggage. In some cases this was done at the gate before boarding, in other cases it was done in a secure area away from the gate, after which I was escorted to the plane (presumably so I couldn't reclaim something I had left in the airport before the checks?)

As a result of going through the process so many times, I also witnessed multiple other people going through the same process - and (again, depending on the airport) it was clear that there was a level of profiling going on as a part of deciding how well to search people. I'm a white male, and I complied with the requests of the security staff, so I was generally given a very cursory check. In some locations other people were clearly given more thorougher checks, including for example a having many of the items in their carry-on luggage removed and inspected.

The one exception to this process was at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, which already has sufficiently good security for all passengers that no further checks are carried out if you are SSSS'ed.

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I've had SSSS once in Canada (at Regina, YQR). I got a bag search at the gate before boarding, and a quick pat-down. It only took a couple of minutes. I had no extra screening happen when I passed through security.

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The TSA is still in reach in another country. When I came back to the US from Brussels a few years ago, an airline agent (United) told me at the gate the "TSA has selected you for additional screening", and he showed me the SSSS on my boarding pass. He then informed me that the search will be carried out by an airline agent. The actual screening took about 2 minutes. An agent in an airline uniform opened the zippers of my bag and wiped it down with piece of paper to detect for explosives. Then she did the same on my hands, waist, lower back, and shoes. After the screening, I was directed straight on to the airplane despite the long line. I was one of the first people on the plane, so something good came out of the screening. In other countries, however, it is done differently. When I got selected for additional screening in Spain, the screening was done at the regular security, and it was carried out by the regular people carrying out the general screening.

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At least in Sydney, the answer appears to be very little. Checking in online worked, security/immigration was normal, the only difference was that at the gate I was taken aside and had a quick explosive sniff test done. This is virtually identical to the one regularly done in Australian airports anyway, the only difference being that they "sniff" your hands as well. The procedure took about 30 seconds and then I was on my way to the Land of Security Theater the Free.

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  • This was also my experience at SYD flying to LAX a couple of years ago, except I couldn't check in online (though that was probably because of a name mangling issue).
    – molypot
    Jan 28, 2019 at 4:57
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Observations:

PVG (Shanghai/PuDong): Means nothing.

YVR (Vancouver, a pre-clearance airport): Extra screening, the gate confirmed that she had gotten the extra screening while we were waiting for our flight. (Note, however, that we were a party of 5, only she got the SSSS. Thus, almost pure security theater.)

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  • You can bet that if they had found something, they would have scrutinized the other four of you.
    – phoog
    Jan 28, 2019 at 10:57
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    @phoog Of course, but by searching only one of us who was known in advance anything dirty could have easily been given to someone else. Nor could they reasonably have even identified which items were hers--some bags had no nametag, some had a last name only (shared by two of us). Jan 29, 2019 at 1:35

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