How Does Southwest Boarding Work? The Complete Boarding Process Explained

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Southwest Airlines is known for its open-seating policy, which can make boarding a Southwest flight seem confusing to first-time flyers on Southwest. If you’re looking to fly with Southwest, this guide will explain everything you need to know about the Southwest boarding process, from check-in to all the different boarding options.

By understanding the steps involved in checking in and boarding a Southwest flight, you’ll have a better idea of what to expect when traveling. We also offer tips on how to get early boarding so that you can get the best seats on Southwest Airlines and avoid finding yourself stuck in a dreaded middle seat in the back of the plane.

Table of Contents

    Southwest Seating Policy

    There are no assigned seats on Southwest airlines. There are no different classes of service. Love it or hate it, Southwest utilizes an open seating policy.

    An open seating policy means that you do not have an assigned seat. Instead, you choose your seat when you get on the plane. With a few exceptions (like exit rows for children), passengers are allowed to choose any seat that is available when they board. So the earlier you are able to get on the plane, the more seating options you’ll have. 

    Checking In

    Check in for Southwest flights begins exactly 24 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure. This is typical for airlines, but if you are flying Southwest it is even more important than usual to set an alarm to check in at the 24 hour mark.

    Southwest check in

    With some exceptions (explained below), when you check in for a Southwest flight determines when you will be able to board the plane and select your seat. That’s because Southwest boarding groups and positions are automatically assigned at check in in order of when people check in. The earlier you check in, the better your boarding position.

    When you check in for your flight, you will be assigned a letter boarding group (A, B, or C) and a boarding position/number (1-60). Those with an A boarding position board first, followed by those with a B boarding position, and those in the C boarding position board last. Within each group, lower numbers board first and higher numbers board later. 

    Whether you have a paper boarding pass or a mobile boarding pass, it will include your flight information as well as your boarding group and boarding position.

    Mobile boarding pass
    Southwest boarding pass
    Paper boarding pass (Image courtesy of Southwest Airlines)

    Southwest Boarding

    If you are flying Southwest Airlines, it’s important to understand Southwest’s boarding process. Southwest’s boarding process is unique from every other airline since they do not assign seats. Instead, passengers select their seat when they board the plane.

    In order to get a desirable seat, or sit with others in your party, you’ll want to have an earlier boarding position. Group A boarding positions board first and group C boarding positions board last. You can get an earlier boarding position by purchasing a more expensive fare type, having elite status, checking in promptly 24 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure, or purchasing or using a credit card benefit that offers Upgraded Boarding or EarlyBird check-in.

    Boarding Order

    The boarding order is the same for every Southwest Airlines flight. Southwest flights always border in this order:

    • Pre-boarding
    • Group A boarding (A1-A60)
    • Passengers needing extra time, but not eligible for pre-boarding
    • A-List/A-List Preferred, active military, family boarding
    • Group B boarding (B1-B60)
    • Group C boarding (C1-C60)

    Boarding Process

    Southwest begins the boarding process roughly 30 minutes before the flight’s scheduled departure. At the beginning of the boarding process, the Southwest agent will have passengers with an A boarding position line up. There will be two lines, one for those with boarding positions 1-30 and the other for boarding positions 31-60.

    At each Southwest Airlines gate, there is a screen showing what group is boarding (A, B, or C) and markers showing passengers where to stand based on their position number. You will likely need to find the section of the line where you belong and then peer at other people’s boarding pass or ask around to find your exact position.

    Southwest boarding
    Southwest boarding group (A) and numbered position markers

    After pre-boarding finishes, the gate agent will allow those with boarding positions A1-30 through, and then boarding positions A31-60. After the A group has boarded, the gate agent will start getting those with group B boarding positions to line up. 

    Before letting the B boarding group on the plane, the gate agent will call up active military, families, and those needing additional time will be allowed to board. If you are in one of these groups, you can board at this time regardless of your boarding position.

    After this, the gate agent will the B boarding group on board. They will start with the B1-30 boarding positions and then the B31-60 boarding positions. Finally, those with C boarding positions will line up and board, starting with the C1-30 boarding positions and followed by the C31-60 boarding positions.

    How to Board a Southwest Flight Earlier


    Pre-boarding on a Southwest Airlines flight is a service provided to those who need extra help getting on the plane. It is open to those who have a specific seating need due to a disability, need boarding help, extra time, or need help stowing an assistive device.

    To be eligible, you must request pre-boarding from a Southwest customer service agent at the ticket desk or departure gate. Upon request, you will be asked a few “fact-finding questions” to decide if you are eligible, and if so, you will receive a boarding pass with a pre-boarding designation and be allowed to pre-board with one companion. However, those who pre-board are not allowed to occupy an exit row seat.

    Business Select

    Business Select is the highest fare offered on Southwest Airlines. Passengers that purchase a Business Select fare are guaranteed an A1-A15 boarding position. In addition to a guaranteed A1-A15 boarding position, Business Select fares earn more points per dollar spent, come with a free premium drink, are fully refundable, and offer free same day changes and standby.

    Upgraded Boarding

    Upgraded Boarding on Southwest Airlines is a way to secure an A1-A15 boarding position without having to purchase a more expensive Business Select fare. It is available 24 hours before the flight’s departure at the gate or ticket counter, or through the Southwest app or website.

    Upgraded Boarding costs $30-$50 per flight segment and is only available if there are less than 15 Business Select passengers on the flight.

    If you have a Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card or Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card, you will get four upgraded boardings per year, subject to availability. To use this benefit, you will need to pay for Upgraded Boarding with your eligible card and then will receive a statement credit on your account.

    Be sure to check out our Guide to Get Free Southwest Upgraded Boarding.

    Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card – Earn 50,000 bonus points
    Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card – 80,000 point bonus
    • $199 annual fee
    • TSA Precheck/Global Entry statement credit
    • 4 upgraded boardings per year
    • Free in-flight wifi
    • 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points for every $10,000 spent
    • 4x earning on Southwest flights; 2x on local transit, internet, cable, phone services, and select streaming
    • 9000 points per year on your card member anniversary

    EarlyBird Check-In

    Passengers with EarlyBird Check-In are automatically checked in and assigned a boarding position within 36 hours of the flight’s departure. EarlyBird Check In will get you a better position. However, since there is no limit on the number of customers who have EarlyBird Check-In, you aren’t guaranteed an A boarding position. 

    EarlyBird Check-In prices vary based on the flight demand and length. Prices start at $15 and can be purchased at point of sale or added later. EarlyBird can be purchased on, on the app, or over the phone up to 36 hours before the scheduled flight.

    Since EarlyBird Check-In is non-refundable, if you cancel your flight you will not be refunded. If you change your flight, your Check-In will be transferred only if your new flight departs more than 25 hours from the original flight. Less than 25 hours and you will lose the EarlyBird Check-In and will not be refunded.

    If Southwest cancels your flight, you will receive a refund. 

    All passengers with an Anytime fare receive EarlyBird Check-In automatically, and will have a better boarding position than those who add it to their reservation. 

    If you have a Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card or Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card, you will get two EarlyBird check-ins per year.

    Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Card
    • Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months
    • $99 annual fee
    • 2 Early Bird Check-ins per year
    • 6000 points per year on your card member anniversary
    • 3x earning on Southwest flights; 2x on local transit, internet, cable, phone services, and select streaming
    • 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points for every $10,000 spent

    Southwest Premier Business Card
    Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card – 60,000 point bonus
    • $99 annual fee
    • 2 Early Bird Check Ins per year
    • Free in-flight wifi
    • 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points for every $10,000 spent
    • 3x earning on Southwest flights; 2x on local transit
    • 6000 points per year on your card member anniversary

    A-List/A-List Preferred

    Southwest Airlines offers two levels of elite status: A-List and A-List Preferred. To qualify for A-List, passengers must fly 25 one-way qualifying flights or earn 35,000 tier qualifying points in one calendar year. A-List Preferred requires flying 50 one-way qualifying flights or earning 70,000 tier qualifying points. Additionally, passengers can take advantage of promotions to help them fast track their status or use a status match.

    Those Southwest passengers with A-List or A-List Preferred status receive priority boarding for themself and everyone on their reservation. A boarding position will be assigned 36 hours prior to the flight, as with EarlyBird Check-In.

    If you are flying with A-List or A-List Preferred status and don’t manage to get an A boarding position, you will be allowed to board between the A boarding group and B boarding group.


    Disabled passengers who need additional time to board, but don’t qualify for preboarding, may board between the A and B groups, prior to Family Boarding. These passengers will need to get a boarding pass with an extra time designation. 

    Active Military

    Active U.S. military members are permitted to board between the A and B groups with a valid military ID.

    Family Boarding

    Be sure to check out our complete Southwest Family Boarding Guide and FAQs to get all your questions answered.

    Family boarding is available to those traveling with a child 6 years old or younger. If you have Family boarding you do not need a special boarding pass. You will merely board the plane when family boarding is called, regardless of your boarding position. 

    family boarding

    If you are traveling with a young child, family boarding takes the stress out of having to check in early since you will be able to board between the A boarding group and the B boarding group.

    When family are allowed to board only about a third of the seats will be occupied. Because of this you should have no trouble getting seats together and finding storage space for any overhead baggage. If you have an A boarding position, you are welcome to board with the A group. 

    In December 2022, Southwest Airlines began a trial for expanded family boarding. Families with children 6 and younger that are traveling on one of the test flights are allowed to board after pre-boarding but before general boarding begins.

    Southwest Airlines Check-In and Boarding Tips

    -Unless you have priority boarding or are in one of the other early boarding categories, set a reminder to check in exactly 24 hours before your flight. This is especially true if you are traveling with a group and want to sit together. 

    -Arrive at the gate at least 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time to ensure you’re there when your boarding position is called. If you aren’t there when your grou* Boarding process for Southwest: overview

    -Familiarize yourself with Southwest’s boarding groups and their respective order so that you can be ready to line up when your boarding group is called.

    -Have a Southwest credit card (or two) that can get you early boarding or EarlyBird check in a few times a year.

    -If you’re using the Southwest Companion Pass for another passenger in your party, you’ll have to check them in separately since they have a different confirmation number.

    -Traveling with kids and wondering where you should sit? We like Row 23! Here’s why:

    Editorial Disclosure – Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.

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