What does SSSS on your boarding pass mean?

Back in August 2018, when flying to Los Angeles, something odd happened.

I was able to check in online for my flight, but the British Airways app refused to give me a boarding pass. I went online and tried to get one there, but that didn’t work either. It was insistent that I had to pick one up at the airport. Well, ok, no big deal I guess.

Once arriving at Heathrow, I was handed a boarding pass with SSSS printed across it. I had heard of this before, but hadn’t experienced it.

What is SSSS?

SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection. It is only applicable on flights to or within the United States.

Some (but not all) criteria for being selected for this secondary search are:

  • Passengers with a one way ticket to the United States
  • Passengers who have paid cash for their ticket
  • A passenger who has had a questionable travelling past
  • A passenger who has booked their ticket within the last few days

As it turned out, I was selected for the final reason on the list. And it was through no fault of my own. I had been booked to take the earlier flight to Los Angeles. However, a few days before departure, that flight was cancelled due to the ongoing issues with the Rolls Royce engines fitted to the Boeing 787. As such, I was rebooked on to the later flight to LA. The computer didn’t know this however and all it saw was that I had a ticket to the USA issued a few days prior to departure. Boom, there’s your reasoning for SSSS.

My Experience with SSSS

As I passed through security at Terminal 5 Heathrow, there wasn’t anything different about it. Business as usual.

It was only once I reached the gate did things differ from the norm.

My name, along with around twenty others was called out over the PA. I handed over my passport and boarding pass to the agent, who then handed both over to the G4S security team.

Once they had everyone on the list, the group was led to a holding pen downstairs in the jet bridge area.

British Airways Airbus A380

A team of around five security agents made their way through the pile of passports and boarding cards one by one, calling each person up individually. When my name was called, it wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting. Much the same as the questions you’re asked when entering the US in fact.

What Is the Purpose of Your Visit?
How Long Will You Be Staying For?
How Will You Be Supporting Yourself Whilst In The US?

Following this initial interview, came the bag search. As my checked bag had long left me, I have no idea whether that was subjected to any additional checks.

In the case of my cabin baggage however, it was relatively straight forward. Much the same as if your bag is singled out for a secondary search when passing through regular security in fact. The agent had a good look through everything that was in my bag, with the addition of having to turn on my laptop – the first time I have ever had to do this, despite it being seemingly mandatory for all flights many years ago…

Once this was complete, my boarding pass was stamped as being checked and it was back into the holding pen.

My SSSS boarding pass

All Clear!

Once all the checks were complete, everyone was free to board. I guess one advantage of this process is that everyone who does have the SSSS check gets pre-boarding.

British Airways A380 First Cabin

How Does The SSSS Check Differ Elsewhere?

Quite honestly, I couldn’t tell you! This was the only time I’ve had the pleasure. And being on home turf, it was made a little less stressful. Whilst there are reports of extra pat downs etc. I don’t recall having any of this. There may have been an extra check with a metal detector, but as this was well over a year ago, I couldn’t say for sure if this was the case.

However, in the USA things are a little more thorough from what I’ve heard.

Further Info

As this is a security related matter, there aren’t any official websites. However there is a little bit of information on Wikipedia covering the subject.


One thought on “What does SSSS on your boarding pass mean?

  • 12th December 2019 at 19:33

    My wife was subjected to a secondary screening last year at Heathrow and this year at Cartagena. In the case of the latter, she could not get a boarding pass to print from the American Airlines website the evening before her flight to Miami.

    My guess is that because her travel was booked about 2 weeks before her trips to Athens (returning via LHR) and Cartagena by a career training association to which she belongs, that raised a red flag.


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