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.
The footer of video sharing site Youku.com:
And from the footer of new site NetEase:
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.
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
Foreign businesses with no legal business presence in China.
Foreign individuals without a passport (and who are therefore ideally not residing in China)
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.