Long Answer: The “quad” as you may overhear at the airport, means you have been “randomly” selected for additional screening of your checked in luggage, carry on and you personally. It’s implemented by TSA (USA Transportation Security Administration) for flights using American airspace, designed to identify "low and high-risk passengers before they arrive at the airport by matching their names against trusted traveller lists and watch lists". Although this seems to happen to us in every country to we travel to, so whatever the German, Chinese, South African and Indian code for SSSS is, we’ve had it!
But don’t panic! (This is never a good idea in general, especially around airports).
For the most part it’s just a more thorough search.
The process usually starts with your inability to print your boarding pass after checking in online or at self check in kiosks. If you don’t check in online you won’t find out until you’re given your boarding pass at the check in counter. For those unable to check in online, it is here you will also find the SSSS printed on your physical boarding pass - usually in the lower right hand corner, and in my case they felt the urge to highlight it! (see picture). At check in, you may also be asked a few more questions than usual about your travel plans and your have ID checked (although a standard procedure for all international travel).
Your checked bags will also be marked with SSSS on the luggage tag and likely subjected to a thorough search before being loaded onto the plane. Nothing should be removed though without your notice. The Chinese were particularly vocal about our ice screws, crampons and PFD knives, all of which were removed from our bags. Fortunately we were fluent in “Chinglish” enough to get our screws and crampons back but the knives have been donated to Urumqi airport.
When you move through security and your boarding pass is scanned by the TSA agent, you may hear a beep, doesn’t matter if you don’t because you will soon hear that you’ve been “randomly selected for additional screening.” From here you’ll get taken to your own security line (pro tip: if you notice SSSS on your boarding pass, just go there straight away - at least you’ll speed up the process… the only benefit of all this!)
*Note: Depending on what country you’re in when you get the SSSS, you may not get notified or moved to another line. They will just garage sale your bag on the conveyor belt and start going through it. This may be due to language barriers (despite 200 years of Colonial rule, Indian TSA agents suddenly won’t understand English).
Those going through this process in the US will be moved to another line where any of the following could happen:
You walk through a metal detector and body scanner (sometimes twice)
Receive a full body pat down (you’ll get this anyway in China, Nepal, India, the Middle East and parts of Africa)
Carry on bags will be meticulously searched and questions asked about certain items (sunglasses and spare underwear are not exempt)
Carry on bags, your hands and clothes swiped and checked for explosive residue.
*Note: For those who travel with camera equipment or other industry specific tools, will notice these are all standard procedures once they find so many electronics in your bag!
The final check will be just before boarding the plane. Here they will scan the boarding pass again, likely another beep and they will look for the TSA stamp. If one is absent they will call a TSA agent to the gate.
This brings me to the final point - How do you end up with SSSS on your boarding pass?
There are a number of reasons and no official explanation exists - I’ve compiled them here from researching other SSSS experiences and our own:
Your trip is characterised as “unusual” (This is coincidently what all our YouTube videos are about)
You’re flying to or from a “high risk” destination (More than one visit to the Pakistan border will do that)
You purchased your tickets last minute (Don’t think we’ve ever purchased a ticket a month in advance)
You’re flying on a one way ticket
Tickets were purchased with cash
You’re on a watch list (there is a procedure for finding out why you’re on this list)
You’re on the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention's “Do Not Board List”
No. There’s not much you can do if you have ticked any of those boxes. If you are genuinely innocent (not breaking any laws) then you will just have to allow some extra time to go through the additional screening. If you fail to check in online, this will give you a heads up you’ll likely need more time at the airport. The process can take 10-30 minutes.
There’s no need to worry or panic about the process (calm down anxious flyers… you’ve probably arrived at the airport way too early anyway!). It’s just part of flying commercial air. Provided you can speak the language you can ask questions of the agents.
*A general note: If you’re traveling internationally to foreign countries, you may experience heavier or different security than you’re used to in the US. (Traveling in China you’d think everyone was flagged with SSSS and seperate lines for men and women with pat downs behind curtains is commonplace in Asian and Muslim countries).
Comment below with your SSSS experiences and check out our video on the topic.
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