When I checked in for my American Airlines flight from Costa Rica back to the States, I noticed that my boarding pass had "SSSS" printed across the top left corner.

Nobody else in my party had this on their boarding pass, and I didn't notice that I was treated differently at the airport (security, waiting at the gate, etc.), with one exception:

During the boarding process, I was pulled aside, and after my bag was searched, the agent swabbed my hands with some kind of cloth that she then fed into a scanner. I seemed to be the only person in line who had to submit to this extra procedure.

What does "SSSS" mean? Does it only apply at certain airports/jurisdictions?

  • Did you ask the airline personnel at the gate? – Karlson Apr 2 '12 at 14:02
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    It means there are snakes on the plane! (Note: NSFW language.) – Nick Chammas Apr 2 '12 at 16:17
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    It means you're in for some harassssment--secondary security screening. – Loren Pechtel Apr 2 '12 at 19:21
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    Check out the documentary "The end of America" by Naomi Wolf.. that will answer all your questions.... – user2248 Apr 18 '12 at 4:33

An acronym for 'Secondary Security Screening Selection' or 'Secondary Security Screening Selectee' which is an airport security measure in the United States and Canada which selects passengers for additional inspection

Though there is no published criteria how passengers are selected for SSSS, Wiki page lists few probable ones.

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    ...because giving people advanced warning about whether they will be subject to a more comprehensive search or not is the way to increase security... It boggles the mind. – nibot Apr 18 '12 at 19:59
  • The advanced warning is a good thing. It allows you to schedule an hour extra for the swaps for explosives or other goods. (estimating here. It took 5+ minutes each time followed by a wait, a repeat, another wait and another repeat. Not sure why they do it three times in the same place.) – Hennes Apr 30 '17 at 23:10
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    @Hennes If the point is to catch/stop wrongdoers, then advanced warning is self-defeating. If someone nefarious gets sees SSSS on their ticket, they'd scrub their attempt, take the flight normally, and try again later. It's only a good thing if we admit that the point isn't to make flying safer. – Carl Kevinson Oct 4 '18 at 14:32
  • Aye. But they do print it on the pass. So you do know it in advance and the make flying safer part is completely negated. – Hennes Oct 4 '18 at 15:57

I have had SSSS once. I extended my stay - I was supposed to fly home let's say Thursday night, but Thursday morning I changed my tickets so I would fly home Friday night. When I checked in I was specifically told by the checkin agent that the change was the reason for the SSSS - I was taking a flight I had booked the previous day. She, and everyone else involved, kept apologizing and explaining. I went through a separate security line, diverted there by the "look at your passport" person you go through first in US airports. This was actually a feature since I got whisked to the front. Then I stood in the middle of a big open space (other passengers kind of stared at me, which I didn't like) while someone searched my carry-on reasonably thoroughly - I've had more thorough seaches post x-ray - and confiscated my face lotion.

On subsequent trips I didn't get it again, lending credence to the "last minute change" explanation. BTW I have heard for folks who got it randomly, reprinting their boarding passes at a kiosk resulted in an SSSS-free boarding pass. I haven't tried that myself and I don't know that I would bother - it was probably a net benefit to have had the special treatment (though that face lotion had been through lots of screenings before and was never confiscated.)

Just had another SSSS and decided to update this answer. There were several changes this time around, some of which may have been about time passing, and some because this was in YYZ and the other in SEA:

  • I was not able to check in online. When I arrived to check in at the desk, I asked why I couldn't check in online (I was worried that it was because of my upgrade) and she told me it was because of the SSSS. She also showed it to me on my boarding pass and said "be sure you get two stamps. Immigration here (the usual place) and security here"
  • It did not get me to the front of the line and I was not made to stand somewhere special
  • My bags went through the Xray but weren't searched. I went through the metal detector and then the nude o scope.
  • the longest part of the whole process was the CATSA folks looking for their rubber stamp so they could stamp my boarding pass to show I had cleared SSSS

I think this one was triggered by flying home from LAS landing at 6am, and then turning right around to go YYZ-SEA less than 12 hours later on a different airline, when I live here. That is a YYZ-LAS-YYZ trip smucked right up against a YYZ-SEA-YYZ trip. Also this YYZ-SEA trip was bought on relatively short notice (a few weeks.)

  • I got SSSS today at Vancouver (YVR) and I didn't meet any of those criteria. I bought the round-trip ticket with a credit card a while back, I fly this route from time to time (almost always with the same airline where I have elite status), and I didn't make any changes to the reservation. I opted for the pat down and they rubbed the explosives detector all over everything. Fortunately I had arrived early because this took a little while. I have Nexus and Global Entry for customs and I almost always get TSA PreCheck. – Michael Mathews Dec 24 '14 at 1:49
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    Sounds like you got off pretty easy from some of the other SSSS stories I've heard. One of my favorites was when 'The Points Guy' wrote a tounge-in-cheek review of TSA SSSS screening at different airports. – reirab Mar 7 '16 at 5:35

Actually this one may be fairly simple: From Wikipedia. You've been selected for secondary Security Screening.