My First SSSS Experience – Getting Selected for an Enhanced Security Screening

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My First “SSSS” Enhanced Security Experience

I spent this past weekend in Mexico City and had a great time. My wife and I brought baby Elizabeth down there to meet her Grandmother and Great Grandmother and I also met up with some friends to see the city a bit. All I can say is it lived up to my lofty expectations. Anyone who is scared of going or otherwise doesn’t see Mexico City as a worthwhile destination is just CRAAAAZY!

Enhanced Security Selection

Yesterday it was time for us to head home, so we headed to the airport. I had checked in online successfully with Southwest, but had used my phone and did not print the boarding pass. (I don’t remember seeing an SSSS on it when I checked in, but I cannot say that for sure.) Upon arrival at the airport, I handed our three passports to the Southwest employee and was handed back three boarding passes. Unfortunately mine had the dreaded SSSS on it.

For those who don’t know, SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection. It basically means that you are to get the strictest search possible of your person and belongings. Knowing how Mexico is generally about security, I feared their process, but didn’t have a choice. Thankfully we were early and I had plenty of time, so we headed to the security checkpoint.

The MEX Security Experience

Once at the main security checkpoint I was delighted when the security agent looked at my boarding pass and sent me on my way. I went through security just like everyone else and was excited. Perhaps I had avoided the dreaded pat down. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

In the U.S. you cannot board a plane with an SSSS boarding pass, so once at the gate I asked the Southwest attendant if I needed a new one. He said that they do the enhanced security AT THE GATE! This actually makes sense since the SSSS mark is from the TSA and thus regular MEX security isn’t in on the game. Anyway, the enhanced search at the gate only involved swiping my clothes and bag for gunpowder residue. Not too bad.

The SNA Security Experience & Pat Down!

When we landed in Orange County I was happy since my SWA-LAS boarding pass was absent of the SSSS. After clearing customs with Global Entry, we had to exit and go through security again. At the TSA checkpoint the agent scanned my boarding pass and the light turned red. She then explained that a supervisor had to be called. While she didn’t look at me strangely, I could tell she was a little perplexed and that this didn’t seem to happen often.

To his credit, the supervisor came over right away and explained the SSSS situation to me. He then shuttled me to the front of the security line. He took possession of my passport, boarding pass and my belongings while I went through the scanner. Once he had cleared my bag through X-ray I was brought to a small area within the security area. I was given the option for a private room and declined.

The enhanced screening began with a full pat down. This was the same exact search I went through last year when I decided to opt-out of the scanner at JFK. It isn’t very pleasant. Following the pat down, the supervisor checked the gloves he had used for gunpowder residue. He then searched my bag thoroughly and swabbed everything including my shoes and cellphone for gunpowder residue. When everything came back negative I was free to go.

How Did I Get SSSS

The SSSS mark is somewhat of a mystery since the TSA doesn’t publish their exact criteria for it. According to what I have found, the TSA maintains a list of people who always receive it and randomly gives it out as well. My sincere hope is that this was a one time random thing and that is sort of reinforced by numerous reports I have found on the internet of people getting an SSSS on flights from Mexico City to the US. Only time will tell.

Very Professional and Pleasant

I fly a lot and have thus dealt with a wide variety of TSA employees. In general most of them are sort of indifferent, while I find about 10% are very rude and 10% are exceptionally nice. I want to say that the TSA employees at SNA including the supervisor were great. They were doing their job, but were kind and respectful the entire time. I sincerely thank them for that.


I had been reading a lot about the dreaded SSSS these past few weeks and was very sad when I saw it on my boarding pass. Thankfully my experience wasn’t a terrible one, but I still don’t feel the need to do it again. For now I’m going to think positive thoughts and assume this was completely random. Of course I fly again in a couple of weeks, so I will know soon enough.

Shawn Coomer
Shawn Coomer earns and burns millions of miles/points per year circling the globe with his family. An expert at accumulating travel rewards, he founded Miles to Memories to help others achieve their travel goals for pennies on the dollar. Shawn also runs a million dollar reselling business, knows Vegas better than most and loves to spend his time at the 12 Disney parks across the world.

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  1. I have been flying from India to States for more than 12 years as a seaman and never heard of SSSS. But this time when I went to the airport to checkin. They said I have SSSS on my boarding pass. I didn’t knew what it is and now I am still waiting for what it gonna be like.

  2. Do you have Global Entry? I’m reminded of the post by The Points Guy last week who traveled to Istanbul and since has been haunted with SSSS and very possibly has lost his Trusted Traveler status-although that remains far from clear. I think this has everything to do with where you traveled and some computer algorithm that looks for this kind of thing. My big concern would be what your Trusted Traveler status is, and how will this change your very frequent travel habits. Points Guy seems to be getting SSSS repeatedly. Perhaps a lesson to the rest of us on where we travel.

  3. Hey bluecat,
    I went to Mexico City for the first time when I was 6 months pregnant. I traveled with my husband and 80 year old mom. We had a fabulous time and never once felt unsafe or uncomfortable. We had no connections to anyone in the city or country for that matter.
    I think people who are afraid to go there are crazy. It is a VERY worthwhile destination and I look forward to taking my kids there someday!

  4. There was a man in Tennessee who was struck by lightning more than 20 times over the years. He finally died, but it took some doing.

  5. Got SSSS (first time) last month before flying SXM to JFK. Same thing as yours, normal security first, enhanced procedure at the gate.

    The guy doing the search did a quick patdown only in my upper body, gave a quick look inside my carry on and asked me to remove my shoes. He then kept moving it up and down, as to feel its wheight maybe.

    I was flying premium, one way. But I do that a lot, so I’m going with random.

    • Yes probably random. The funny thing is I often travel last minute and string together one-way awards, but this roundtrip ticket was booked months in advance. Go figure!

  6. I’m surprised you were SSSS’d. It’s definitely random. But each country seems to have its own rules / regulations on how to perform searches — in particular patdowns. A guy friend of mine (30’s) had the most awkward patdown flying back from Rome. The screener did multiple patdowns with palm of the hand (in US, TSA must use back of the hand). My friend was thoroughly embarrassed, as the patdown focused on one particular area– the screener cleared him after my friend gave the screener the results he was seeking.

    Is there anything one can do to report potentially inappropriate body searches/patdowns?

  7. Just a point about visiting Mexico City and those who are afraid are “crazy”: I think your experience is (positively) influenced by your connection (friends and family that are there). If you went as “Gringo Shawn” on your own, for example, you probably would not be so enthusiastic.

    I have a friend in Panama, for example, who can take me around. I think the place is great. But I definitely would understand anyone who went alone and was a little more fearful.

    It definitely helps to have a connection and, if you have locals with you, then you even get “safe passage” to places you wouldn’t normally go.

    • While everything you said about having local connections is true, my wife was actually visiting with her mom and grandmother while I went off and explored with my 2 gringo friends. On this trip we didn’t have any local connections and really were three white guys going around Mexico City. While I do speak enough Spanish to get by, neither of my friends do and we all agreed that it is an amazing place.

  8. If you get one SSSS and have done nothing wrong, you will get again and again though not on 2nd or third time.

    The solution is to write to your Congressman/Senator and have them contact TSA/DHA to either charge you for any crimes they suspect or remove your name completely.

    That’s a permanent solution. After that, you can file the redress with TSA.

  9. In August, our family (wife, daughter and myself) flew to Cancun. On return, my wife got a SSSS instead of PreCheck, while my daughter and myself got a PreCheck (as usual). In Cancun they didn’t extensive search, but in MIA TSA really took it seriously (as TSA agent told my wife – “we got a winner today”). Only good thing, that my wife gave all her belongings to me (since we had a precheck), and her search was minimal.

    • That is one thing I left out of the story. My poor wife had the baby, a stroller and a carseat plus the diaper bag and she had to go through security by herself with the baby! (Which means putting all of that stuff through Xray and removing the baby, etc.) It is good that your wife was able to give you most of the luggage since that was a lot of what they were looking through. He ran that detector through every single spot of my backpack.

  10. Shawn, I got SSSS this weekend too. Have Global Entry/precheck so I was not happy. Got it leaving IAD going to LAS, but luckily didn’t have it coming home. I guess Global Entry people aren’t exempt.


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