Please note: This article is for individuals or companies that want a hosting server (or hosting account) situated in a datacenter in the mainland of China.
If you want a serious web presence in mainland China, you'll need an ICP License; and while there's an increasing interest in cozying up to the Chinese web market, there's not a ton of comprehensive English-language info available on what that involves.
We'll try to cover what an ICP license is, whether or not you should bother, and the myriad joys of slogging through the bureaucratic hurdles.
Before you use this as your de-facto Bible, bear a few things in mind: one, internet laws in China change all the time, and what's true today may not be true tomorrow. And two, unless you have an extreme masochistic streak, it's unlikely you'll be able to actually follow these steps without help from a fluent Chinese speaker. None of the sites you'll need to visit are in English (yet), and even if you could machine-translate your way through the mire, some user registrations require that you input an SMS verification code which only sends to China-based mobile numbers, and not all of the sites mentioned accept international payment methods. So I understand that for many, this article will be, at best, an academic look into what it takes to get square with the Chinese hosting authorities. If you do have access to a Chinese speaker, however, or if you already have a business outpost in China, this article should give you the resources you send you on your way to ICP bliss.
What is an ICP License?
An ICP (Internet Content Provider) license is a state-issued registration number that allows you to host your website on a mainland Chinese server. All sites hosted on a server in the Chinese mainland must, by law, apply for and receive one of these certificates before their site goes live, a rule enforced at the hosting level. Getting an ICP license is an additional step that is taken after you buy your hosting and domain, but before your site goes live. ICP license numbers are usually displayed in the small print in website footers.
Here is one in the footer of popular classifieds portal 58.com. The ICP license number usually includes a single character indicating the Chinese province in which the license was issued, then the word "ICP License", then the number itself:
The footer of video sharing site Youku.com:
And from the footer of new site NetEase:
Is Getting an ICP at all Avoidable?
The short answer is that if you want to host your website on a mainland Chinese server, NO you have to have an ICP.
But do you really have to host in mainland China?
Consider: Only sites within the Chinese mainland are required by law to have an ICP, so if your site isn't hosted on the mainland, you don't need one. It's not even possible to apply for one if your site is hosted elsewhere.
Many firms counsel their clients to host in Hong Kong, since Hong Kong servers are pretty close geographically, but they are governed by a different set of laws.
ICP licenses don't technically have much to do with whether or not your site is visible or blocked in China. Sites with ICPs get taken offline all the time. Sites without them may be visible indefinitely. The ICP simply means you've been approved to host your website on a mainland Chinese server. That's it. With those points in mind, the answer to whether or not you need an ICP revolves around how serious you are about entering the Chinese market and on what scale. If you're taking a real stab at getting a piece of the China pie, you need to be able to compete with sites locally, so yes, you need one, with all the paperwork that entails. But if you're a small- or medium-sized company with a basic website that's only tangentially interested in reaching Chinese users, then you can probably host in Hong Kong with no problem.
What Will Happen if I Don't Have an ICP license ?
Maybe nothing, maybe your entire business plan will turn to ash in your mouth.
Without an ICP, you'll be unable to purchase hosting in mainland China, because all hosts will ask for your ICP license before they release server credentials to you.
That said, there are plenty of non-China-hosted sites that do just fine without an ICP. If your site is small enough, and doesn't contain any politically sensitive keywords or is not hosted on any blocked domains or IP ranges, your site will probably work in China, though it may be a little slow. However, if your site becomes blocked, or the host you're hosting with becomes blocked, you'll have no recourse by which to unblock it. You can't call anyone, file a report, appeal to government agency, or even ask to know what happened and why. You are, in essence, outside the system.
Who Can Apply for an ICP License ?
A basic ICP Bei An license is the standard, run-of-the-mill paperwork required by all mainland China-hosted websites.
The following entities may apply for a basic ICP:
Chinese-owned businesses with a Chinese business license can apply for a Business ICP.
Partially or wholly foreign-owned (non-Chinese) businesses with any type of Chinese business license (Joint-Venture or WOFE, for example), can apply for a Business ICP Chinese nationals, using their state-issued ID, can apply for an Individual ICP
Foreign (non-Chinese) individuals, using their passport as ID, who can be physically present in China long enough to fulfill some basic registration requirements, can apply for an Individual ICP
The following entities may not apply for an ICP:
Foreign businesses with no legal business presence in China.
Foreign individuals without a passport (and who are therefore ideally not residing in China)
The following entities may get an E-Commerce ICP:
Chinese-owned businesses with a Chinese business license.
In theory, Joint-Venture companies where less than 50% of the company is owned by a non-Chinese can legally apply.
(In practice, according to several local Chinese agencies, Commercial ICPs are rarely issued to companies with any foreign investment whatsoever.?
Everyone else is out of luck. Businesses wishing to obtain a Commercial ICP can't go through online channels to apply they need to contact the relevant government body directly before doing anything else, so this article will focus primarily on Basic ICP.
The Application Process Outlined
Since the process is a little convoluted, let's do a quick overview before we dive into the procedural details.
The agent checks the documents and submits them to the provincial government branch of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT - gong ye he xin xi hua bu), the Chinese government agency responsible for issuing ICP licenses. If the application's approved, MIIT notifies the agent, the agent unlocks your account and you're good to go.
The most interesting thing you'll notice here is that you, the site owner, will never interface with the MIIT yourself that's the Chinese hosting company's job. It wasn't always so: it used to be that you had to apply via the MIIT site, but that seems to have changed. According to MIIT:
All roads begin with Chinese hosting, and all Chinese hosting begins with Aliyun. Aliyun.com was originally China's answer to Amazon AWS, but since their parent company, e-comm powerhouse Alibaba Group, has been snatching up smaller storage and domain providers, the Aliyun family of sites has become China's most popular one-stop-shop for all things host-related.
Still need a MIIT, ICP License ?
Our advise can only be: Take an agent in China. Mainly because the procedure is in Chinese, signatures have to be certified by the different Chinese agencies and all communication is done in Chinese by good oldfashioned "snailmail". Good Luck !
* This article is written to the best of found knowledge on the internet. (JP 2014-2018)