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.
Assisted by two lovely lads from Beijing-based web shops, the endlessly knowledgeable Kevin Woo at Kevin Woo Designs, and Alex Dodkin at Eggplant Digital, I’ll cover what an ICP license is, whether or not you should bother, and the myriad joys of slogging through the bureaucratic hurdles.
Hold on a Minute
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 babies 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’s 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?
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.
Ooh, ran into a genuine ICP non-compliance take-down notice. Website taken down for failure to legally register. pic.twitter.com/9U4GyWyHKF— Kendra Schaefer (@kendraschaefer) March 4, 2015
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 (ICP Bei An - 备案)
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 (duh) can apply for a Business ICP (企业备案)
- 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 (个人备案)
- 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 can technically apply for an ICP, but probably shouldn’t:
- Extremely tenacious and self-hating foreign (non-Chinese) individuals, using their passport as ID, who are not and cannot be physically present in China at all, and who are willing to sell their souls to obtain:
- A Chinese landline number
- A Chinese cell phone number
- An Alipay.com account (China’s Paypal equivalent) hooked up to an international Visa/Mastercard or other source of funds.
- A Chinese mail-forwarding service or friend based in China who will receive a package for you and send it on
- A Chinese speaker to help out with reading web registration forms, or a desire to spend several months locked in a torrid love-hate relationship with Google Translate
Commercial ICP (中华人民共和国增值电信业务经营许可证, or 经营许可证 for short)
There’s another type of ICP license that is only for companies who primarily conduct business online. In other words, if your business is conducted mostly or entirely over the interwebz, if you never meet your customers in person, and particularly if you’ll be engaging in online sales or accepting online payments in China, you’ll need one of these.
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. After you purchase your hosting and before that hosting account is unlocked for you, you submit your ICP application form and documents to the web host, the host checks them and submits them to the provincial government branch of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT - gong ye he xin xi hua bu - 工业和信息化部), the Chinese government agency responsible for issuing ICP licenses. If the application’s approved, MIIT notifies the host, the host unlocks your account and you’re good to go.
MIIT offers a flowchart outlining the process. I have the original here, with a translated version:
The most interesting thing you’ll notice here is that you, the site owner, will never interface with the MIIT yourself–that’s the 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.
All roads begin with hosting, and all 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.
Because so many site owners go directly through Aliyun to get their ICP numbers, the Aliyun site and the Aliyun user forums have become, in my opinion, the best source of information on ICP Licensing procedure.
Last Notes Before We Dig In
Before we dig into the meat of the process, a few notes gleaned from the hallowed Aliyun halls:
Servers, Domains and ICP
ICP licenses are tied to both a particular IP and a particular domain name–you must provide both server IP and domain during the Bei An registration process. You cannot apply for an ICP license using a domain name registered outside of China. This also means that if you move your site to a new server sometime in the future, you must update your ICP license with the new server information. This is another reason I recommend doing the process via Aliyun and their sister companies: they can provide an integrated set of solutions that let you buy hosting, buy a domain, and bind your ICP License application to a specific domain/server pair.
FYI: If you don’t read Chinese, you’ll need help
Before you plow forward, know this: if you can’t speak or read Chinese, you’ll need help to continue. While it’s my fervent hope that this changes in the near future, as of now, the Aliyun website and management panel interface is currently only available in Chinese. If you’re not sure how to proceed, there’s a firm called ICP Services, which specializes in helping foreigners and foreign companies submit ICP applications–you might want to consider dropping them a line.
FY-Sigh: every Chinese province has its own ICP License regulations
Bear with me while I throw an extra layer on top of this cake: businesses registering for an ICP license must register in the province their business license was issued in. In other words, if your business was opened in Henan Province, you must register for an ICP under Henan regulations.
Not so for individuals, though. Individuals who are registering for a basic ICP may choose to base their registration in any Chinese province. In other words, I could choose to register from Beijing or Sichuan, so there’s a little wiggle room for picking and choosing your place of issue.
Why would you care about provincial place of issue?
In general, the regulations don’t change too much from province to province, but there are some slight variations and some provinces might suit you better than others. Hebei Province, for example, does not allow non-Hebei residents to register from there, while Beijing Province does, so if I was a non-Chinese individual living in Hebei, I could choose to register under Beijing regulations and still get my ICP. Hilariously, Liaoning Province regulations state that when you get your registration photo taken, you have to be wearing “seasonally appropriate clothing” (fifty bucks to the first Liaoning ICP registration in a Santa Suit).
The Aliyun website offers an interactive map that shows rules on a per-province basis–click on any province to see the regulations below. Each set of rules is broken into two tabs, the default tab is for companies, the second tab for individuals.
Unless you have a particular preference, I’d say just go ahead and register from Beijing.
Okay, Let’s do This
Step 1: Register a domain in China and buy hosting
You’ll need to fill in your domain and some server data on your ICP license registration form, so you have to buy hosting and register a domain name before anything else happens; and since ICP licenses can’t be attached to hosts based outside of China or domain names registered outside of China, you have to go through a Chinese provider. A walk-through of that process is a bit out of the scope of this article, but allow me to get your feet pointed in the right direction: you can buy both of these goodies from Net.cn (yes, they sell .cn domain names!), another Alibaba Group member company, but in order to do that, you’re going to need an Aliyun Passport account, which you can register for here.
The Aliyun user panels (from which you’ll manage your ICP licenses) are integrated with the Net.cn user panels (from which you’ll manage your hosting and domains) via Aliyun Passport. If you’re logged into Aliyun, when you go to the Net.cn home page, you’ll already be logged in there too, and you can (and should) use the same username and password to purchase hosting and a domain.
Let me again clarify that you do not have to go through Aliyun–they’re just one of many Chinese hosts you can choose. I’m recommending them here because of their size and because of the integrated ICP/hosting/domain experience.
If you’re based outside of China, you’ll probably need to call net.cn to make this purchase. The net.cn online cart requires all sorts of stuff you won’t have, like a Chinese state ID number, a Chinese landline, and only offers Chinese payment methods. Accepted payment methods:
Step 2: Get your Bei An service number
Go back to your Aliyun.com user account and snag a “Bei An service number” (备案服务号), which is a free-floating ID that you’ll bind to a server and domain. The Bei An Service Number is the glue that binds your server IP, your domain name, and your ICP application filing together. You may have more than one Bei An Service Number. You can find these in your Aliyun user profile.
Logged in users should first click the Apply (shen qing 申请) button here. The application is often approved immediately.
You’ll then be able to find a list of your Bei An Service Numbers in your user profile area.
Before you move on, you’ll have to bind your Bei An service
number to the server you purchased at Net.cn (or wherever). This can be done with a couple of clicks in the
Bei An management panel pictured above.
Step 3: Register for the Aliyun ICP Management System (ICP代备案管理系统)
Okay, you have the server, you have the domain, you have the Bei An service number. Let’s ask the powers that be for an ICP license. Start by getting an account in the ICP application system here.
Step 4: Log in to the Aliyun ICP Management System and fill out the registration form
Once you’ve registered, you can login here, and you’ll be taken directly to the first page of the ICP application form. This is a long, multi-page deal in which you’ll need to enter your Bei An service number, a Chinese landline and Chinese mobile phone number, a ton of details about your site, plus upload a picture of your passport, so ensure you have some time to kill.
First, you’ll fill in your domain name (Aliyun reminds us once again not to use a domain registered outside of China, and tells us what to do in case multiple domains point to the same host), what province and district you want to register from, what type of ICP you’re after (military, government, personal, business, social), what type of ID you’ll be providing, a space to fill in your ID number, and a CAPTCHA.
You’ll be asked to choose a service type (Aliyun) and input your Service Number:
You’ll be asked to input some basic info about the content of the site–what type of site is it? What languages will it be in?
You’ll also need to upload a copy of your passport, and a copy of your business license if you’re applying as a company:
Step 5: Submit your documents for Aliyun’s approval
Once you’ve finished filling out all those details, submit the application to Aliyun for pre-approval. They’re pretty knowledgeable about what gets rejected and what doesn’t, so they’ll let you know within one business day if there’s any problem with your application.
Step 6: Get your photo taken
Okay, this is the interesting part. In recent days past,
Aliyun/MIIT required that ICP applicants physically visit one of several
designated locations and get an official photo taken as part of the application
process. This is still a very common way to meet this requirement, and there
are official pic-taking locations in most major Chinese cities.
This rule meant that while any passport holder living outside of China could technically apply for a Basic ICP using just their passport, they still had to be in China long enough to get a picture taken at one of these places.
But Aliyun has recently added an alternative method: applicants can now request that an official “mu bu” (幕布), meaning “curtain”, is shipped to you, and Aliyun will send it anywhere in China for free. The mu bu, as you may have guessed, is Aliyun’s official photo backdrop. Once users receive the backdrop, they take a headshot against it, and upload it to Aliyun.
Several Chinese nationals residing overseas took to the Aliyun forums to ask if the mu bu could be shipped internationally. As of July 2014, Aliyun forum mods say they are “temporarily unable to ship mu bu outside of China”. [Sadface]
Until they sort out international shipping, there is a way round this: Chinese users elsewhere on the forums suggest having the mu bu shipped to someone in China who can then ship it to you. It doesn’t matter where you have the photo taken, just that you can get your hands on a mu bu, so if you can swing China mail forwarding or have a friend on the mainland, you should be able to sort this out.
Step 7: Wait for MIIT to approve
Providing your application data has received the nod from Aliyun and you’ve uploaded an acceptable pic, Aliyun will then pass your application on to the MIIT.
Because you have to purchase hosting before you can even begin the ICP application, Aliyun offers reimbursement for any time you spent waiting for your documentation to go through, up to 30 days. In other words, since you can’t use the hosting account you just bought until you get your ICP, Aliyun will tack free hosting days onto your account for every day (up to 30) you spent waiting for the approval.
So, although no one really wants to give a definite timeline, this evidence (coupled with some anecdotal stories) suggests that the process typically takes no more than four weeks.
Step 8: Congrats–you’re an exhausted, grey-haired ICP license holder!
Now please bandage your wrists up and get yourself a popsicle.
The Mysterious “Pre-Approval” Process
To further complicate matters, certain sites require “Pre-Approval” (qian zhi shen ci - 前置审批) from the government before you begin the process of submitting an ICP application via the hosting company. Pre-Approval primarily applies to:
- News sites
- Media distribution (video and audio - think Youtube or Spotify)
- Sites distributing medical information, equipment or pharmaceuticals
- Online games
- A vaguely-worded assortment of “cultural” websites
The way I read this is that if you’re launching a web app in China, if you’re facilitating communication between users, if you’re going into the business of publishing the news, or if you’re in an industry where quackery is dangerous, you need to ask MIIT first, and request any relevant forms.
From a mod on the Aliyun forums in January 2015, in response to a user asking about setting up a forum:
“Dear OP! Currently MIIT Requirements state that a forum cannot exist on a site registered with an Individual ICP. Even a Business ICP holder that wants to put up a forum must contact the appropriate government department and get Pre-Approval documents before they can set this up. If you put up a forum without following these rules, if the government department checks, they may close down your site or cancel your ICP, please note.”
Pre-Approval also applies to those looking for a Commercial ICP license. If your site needs Pre-Approval at all, Aliyun can’t help you until you’ve spoken to the government agency. Everything I’ve read indicates that Pre-Approval can only be obtained by contacting the MIIT in the province you wish to register from and getting a consultation on a case-by-case basis. The MIIT site provides an XLS containing every provincial office number in the country. I’ve translated that list and you can download it from here.
How to Make This Go Away
This process is not for the faint of heart. I fully suspect most of you intelligent souls will take a look at this and conclude you’d rather not bother, but as the market grows, I imagine more and more non-Chinese individuals and companies will find an ICP registration necessary. If you have specific questions related to your situation, I’d reach out to ICP Services and ask them what they can do. Eggplant is another good choice.
Good luck, and Godspeed.