What Is Chinese ICP Licensing: How to Get Hosted in China and Why You Should Do It

Building your web presence in China is serious work. To start, you’ll need an ICP License, but there’s not exactly plenty of info on how to set this up online. And if there is info, it’s usually not in English – that’s why I decided to write this article. I plan to cover what an ICP license actually is, whether or not you should even consider setting one up, and how to get through all the bureaucratic channels to ensure that your website is up and running smoothly. Let’s get started, shall we?

Some Info Before We Get Started

So I know that there’s not plenty of places to get information like this in English, but before you use this as your end-all guide for Chinese ICP licensing, I want make a few things clear. First and most importantly, just bear in mind that internet laws change all the time in China. Now, I know this might sound intuitive, but I just don’t want you to use this guide and forget this basic principle. What is true today might not necessarily be true at a later date, so keep that in mind while reading through this guide. Secondly, it’s best if you have a native Chinese speaker accompany you while going through this process because none of these sites are in English yet. Unless you’re looking to painstakingly translate every word you come across, I would suggest getting yourself an in-person translator and someone that knows their way around the Chinese web. Trust me, it will make your life a whole lot easier – some of the sites mentioned do not accept international payments and the registrations might involve verifications that only work with Chinese-based mobile numbers. Consider yourself forewarned. So on that note, let’s get into the guide.

What On Earth Is an ICP License?

ICP stands for “Internet Content Provider” and an ICP license allows you to host your own website on mainland Chinese servers. It’s essentially a state-issued registration number which all websites in mainland China must have, by law, in order to establish themselves and this rule is enforced on the hosting level. Therefore, getting an ICP license is an added step that you must go through after you purchase your domain and hosting, and it is required before your site goes online. The actual ICP license numbers can be found in the footer of websites in small print. Below I included an example so you know what I’m talking about, highlighted by a red box; this particular one is from a popular portal called 58.com. As you can see, the ICP license is made up of a Chinese character which indicates where the license was issued (i.e. what providence), followed by “ICP License,” and then the actual number of the license.

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Here’s another ICP license, this one from Youku.com:

And here’s yet another one from a new site that just recently started up called NetEase:

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Could I Get Around Getting an ICP?

Sorry to tell you, but no – you need to get one. However, consider if you even need to host your website in mainland China. Think about it this way: only those websites that are within mainland China require ICP licenses, so if your site isn’t hosted there, you don’t need one. Because of this, some firms decide to host in Hong Kong instead since it is run on a different set of laws despite being close geographically.

Another thing to consider is this: ICP licenses have little to do with if your sites are visible in mainland China. Web pages with ICP licenses get taken down all the time. Sites without them can be seen indefinitely on the mainland, but they can’t be hosted there. Having an ICP license simply means is that you have been approved to host your website in mainland China. It has no ramifications on if your website is actually seen or not. Keep this in mind while applying for the license.

So when you’re thinking about applying for an ICP license, reflect on your priorities. Are you looking to get a real piece of the Chinese internet market? Are you competing with local sites? If so, then you definitely need one – and you need to go through these bureaucratic channels. However, if you’re just a small company that wants to reach Chinese internet users and is not altogether focused on solely them as your audience, then you can just host in Hong Kong. It all depends on your priorities.

If I Don’t Have an ICP What Happens?

Who really knows? – Maybe nothing, or maybe your site will get taken down. All that is certain is that mainland China will not host your website because all their hosts will ask for your ICP license before giving you the necessary tools to make your site visible. You might run into a problem like the one below.

All things considered, there are plenty of sites that use non-China hosted sites but turn out just fine. If your site is relatively small, doesn’t contain any keywords that might offend political sensibilities, and isn’t on any blocked domains/IPs, your site will be up and running. That being said, it might be a little slow. However, also bear in mind that if your site is blocked, or your host is shut down, you will not have means of recourse. Since you’re outside of system, you can’t do anything about it. Think about this when you consider applying for you ICP license.

Who Can Apply for an ICP License?

The following entities may apply for an ICP License (or at least they’re eligible to, whether or not you actually get the license is up in the air):

  • Chinese-owned businesses with Chinese businesses licenses can apply for business ICP licenses no problem.
  • Any foreign-owned business with a Chinese business license can also apply for a business ICP license.
  • Chinese nationals can receive an individual ICP license. All they need is their ID card issued by the state.
  • Non-Chinese individuals in China with passports can apply for an individual ICP license, but only if they have been in China long enough to complete the registration requirements.

It’s much clearer who can’t apply for an ICP license.

  • Foreign businesses with no presence in China legally.
  • Foreign persons with no password and who are likely not residing in China.

However, you can sign up if you’re a risk-taking foreigner with your ID, but are not present in China. You really need to cough up a lot of money to do this, however. You need: (1) a Chinese landline phone number, (2) Chinese cell phone contact, (3) an Alipay.com account connected to your international source of funds, (4) Chinese mail-forwarding service or someone in China who can send you packages, and (5) a Chinese translator.

If you fit these credentials, you’re set to apply for an ICP license.

The Commercial ICP License

There’s a type of ICP license I haven’t described yet – it’s called an e-commerce ICP license and it’s only for companies who are primarily conducting business online. You’ll definitely need one of these if you never meet your customers and do all your sales on the web. The criteria for these licenses are as follows (again, this does not ensure you get them):

  • Chinese-owned businesses that have a Chinese business license.
  • Technically, you can still apply for this if your joint-venture company has less than 50% of foreign ownership, but in practice it is highly unlikely that commercial ICPs are issued for companies with any foreign investment according to local Chinese company sources.

It’s a pretty small threshold and if you don’t fit these criteria, you can’t get one. Because of this, I intend this guide to primarily focus on Basic ICP licenses since these commercial ones are so nit-picky with who they choose.

The Application Process

Given that it’s so complicated, I think a brief overview might be best so you know what I’m talking about before we get into the nitty-gritty details. So first, you purchase your hosting, but before it’s unlocked for you, you need to submit your ICP application form and all the documentation. After being looked at and inspected, it’s sent to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) which is responsible for issuing ICP licenses. Whenever it’s approved (and if it’s approved), the ministry then notifies the host of your site and the host then unlocks your account – then you’re good to go!

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The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology even offers a flowchart to better illustrate the process I’m talking about here. Here’s the original chart with a translated version.

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An interesting thing to note is that you, as the owner of the website, will never have to directly talk to MIIT. It’s entirely the responsibility of the hosting company. However, this is a recent development – it used to be that you yourself had to apply, but this has changed and it makes life a whole lot easier for you.

You Really Need to Have Aliyun

Aliyun.com started as China’s response to Amazon’s AWS service, but they have since become China’s most popular shop for everything related to internet hosting.

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The Aliyun website and its user forums are one of the best sources of information on ICP Licensing procedure because it’s so active. So many site owners need to go through this network to get their ICP numbers, so they’re a sure-way to educate yourself on this topic. I recommend you check it out.

Last Notes and Thoughts Before I Start the Step-By-Step Guide

OK, I know I’ve said I’ll get into the actual steps to getting your ICP license a few times now, but I’m serious this time. Let’s just run through a few more things because the entire process is so complicated.

Let’s first talk about servers, domains, and ICPs – your ICP license is tied to your respective IP address and domain, and you must provide both of these during the registration process. It also can’t be registered outside of China. Keep in mind also that if you ever move your server, you also need to correspondingly update your ICP license with the new server. This is why I highly recommend going through Aliyun and their partner companies. They provide integrated solutions that let you buy hosting and a domain, and they bind your ICP license application to a specific domain/server pair so you don’t have to go through extra trouble when you’re changing gears.

Secondly, you need to be able to read Chinese or have someone available that can. This is required and not a suggestion. This might change in the future, but for now the Aliyun interface is only in Chinese. If you’re entirely clueless in this regard, there’s a company called ICP Services which focuses on providing help to foreigners and foreign-based firms set up their ICP licenses. Consider calling them if you really need help and can’t find anyone to translate.

Thirdly, there’s a bonus caveat about ICP licenses – every Chinese province has its own ICP licensing rules. For example, the Henan Province has its own regulations and setting up a business presence online requires you abide by that region’s ICP regulations. However, luckily this is not the case for individual ICP licenses. There’s plenty of more wiggle room and where you choose to register in China is not guided by different rules.

Should you care about in what provincial place you set up your website? – Generally, no, because the regulations do not vary much from region to region. However, of course, there are some variations. Hebei Province, to give on example, does not allow non-residents to apply there, while a province like Beijing does. Therefore, if I was living in Hebei Province, I could register under Beijing regulations and still receive my ICP license. Aliyun has an excellent interactive map which tells you all the rules and regulations in each respective Chinese province. One column is for individuals, the other is for companies, and I find it incredibly useful.

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Unless you’re hell-bent on a certain region, I suggest you just sign up and register from Beijing.

Time to Actually Begin: Step-By-Step Guide to Setting up Your ICP License

Step I: Registering Your Domain in China and Buying Hosting

Are you excited? The first thing you’ll need to do is fill in your domain and server data on your ICP license registration form. Well, OK, the first thing you should actually do is purchase a host and register a domain name, but I’m assuming you already did that. Make sure it is purchased from a Chinese provider, though, otherwise you won’t be to receive an ICP license. I’m not going to go into detail how to do this because that’s not the focus on this article, but just to give you some pointers – you can purchase both of these (hosting and domain name) from sites like Net.cn which is part of the Alibaba Group company, but you’re going to need an Aliyun Passport account.

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Take a look at the Aliyun user panels. It is the place where you’ll manage your ICP licenses and it’s integrated into Net.cn user panels from where you’ll be managing your hosting and domains through your Aliyun Passport. This is convenient, no? Whenever you log into Aliyun, you’ll already be logged into Net.cn also, and you should probably use the same username/password to purchase your hosting and domain so you don’t get confused.

Of course, you don’t need to go through Aliyun – they are just one of many options. However, I do recommend them because of their popularity and also because they have successfully integrated ICPs, hosting, and domains making your life a whole lot easier.

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If you’re outside of China, you’re going to need to call Net.cn to make a purchase. The online site requires a whole slew of information you don’t have if you’re not a national like a Chinese state ID number, a Chinese landline, and a Chinese payment method. Here’s the list of available payment methods. Like I said, call them instead.

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Step II: Get an Bei An Service Number

OK, now go back to your Aliyun.com user account and get yourself a Bei An service number. This is an ID that will bind your server to your domain. The Bei An Service Number puts everything together – your server IP, domain name, and ICP application. You may have more than one and these are located in your Aliyun user profile.

Once you log in, click the “Apply” button. The application is often approved immediately. Below is an illustration of the button of what I’m talking about.

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After this step, you’ll be able to find all your Bei An Service Numbers now in your user profile.

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You’re getting there. Before we go further, you’ll need to bind your Bei An number to the server you bought on Net.cn or wherever you got (remember, it has to be a Chinese provider). This is done with just a few clicks in the Bei An management panel which is shown above.

Step III: Register Yourself in the Aliyun ICP Management System

Check this off with me – you have your server, you have your domain, and you have your Bei An service number, right? It is time to start asking for your ICP license. You begin by signing up for an account in the ICP application system.

Below is an image of what it should look like.

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Step IV: Log into the Aliyun ICP Management System and Complete the Registration Form

Now you have assumingly registered, so you can login here. After logging in, you will be taken to the ICP application form. It’s time to crunch in the information, so get ready. You’ll need to enter you Bei An service number, a Chinese landline/mobile phone number, details about your site, and a picture of your passport. Make sure you set some time aside for this long process.

First thing you’ll need to do is type in your domain name – and one that is registered in China of course. Then you need to signify which province/district you are registering with, what type of ICP you’re applying for, what type of ID you have and its number, and a CAPTCHA to make sure you’re not a bot. Afterwards, you’ll need to choose your service type (in this case, Aliyun) and you need to plug in your Service Number.

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After that, you’ll be asked to type in some very basic information about what your site is about. What type of website is it? What language is it in? – Questions like that.

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After plugging in all this info, you will be asked to upload a copy of your passport, and also a copy of your business license if you’re making this on behalf of a firm.

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Step V: Submitting the Documents so Aliyun Can Approve Them

You’re all done with the registration process, so click submit for pre-approval. Aliyun knows what goes through and what won’t, so they will contact you within a business day if there’s anything wrong with your registration.

Step VI: Time to Get Your Photo Taken

Recently, Aliyun and the MIIT have asked that all those that apply for ICP licenses need to physically be present at one of their designated locations to get their official photo taken. It’s part of the application process and you can’t avoid it. There are locations in most major Chinese cities, so don’t worry. This rule also means that although you can technically apply for ICP licenses if you’re outside of China, you still need to be in the country at some point to get your photo taken. That might be inconvenient, but that’s the process.

However, there is an alternative which might be much easier: Aliyun has recently started an alternative method to taking these necessary photos. They will ship you an official mu bu curtain for free anywhere in China. It’s the official photo backdrop and once you receive it, you just need to take a headshot against the backdrop and upload it to Aliyun for approval. This might be a lot easier than driving to a nearby city and wait to have your photo taken.

As you can imagine, some forum posters on Aliyun asked if the mu bu could be sent internationally. As of most recently, July 2014, Aliyun has responded saying that they are, as of now, unable to ship it outside of China. Hopefully, this will change soon.

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OK, I admit it, there is a way around this. You could have the mu bu shipped to someone in China and then that individual can ship it to your internationally. It really doesn’t matter where you take the photo, you just need to have the backdrop for the photo to be accepted. Consider this a possible option if you’re outside of China and want your ICP license.

Step VII: Patient is a Virtue – You Need to Wait for MIIT to Approve

So let’s cover what we have so far – Aliyun has given you the go-ahead, you’ve uploaded your photo, and now it’s being processed by MIIT.

Luckily, while you wait you don’t need to pay for your hosting. Aliyun reimburses you for any time you spend waiting for your ICP license to be accepted. Remember, you need to purchase hosting before you can start this process, but it just sits there until it gets MIIT approval. Aliyun fixes this issue by giving your free hosting for up to 30 days while you wait.

Given what we know, I think it’s safe to say that this process takes no longer than four weeks.

Step VIII: Congratulations!

You are now a proud holder of an ICP license. Whew, that took a while. Hopefully it was worth it. Treat yourself to something because you earned it.

As a Bonus: The Pre-Approval Process and What That’s About

I don’t want to complicate the issue because we covered mostly everything you need to know to get your ICP license, but certain sites do require you to go through what is called “pre-approval” from the Chinese government before you can even begin the process of registering for an ICP License. This applies to (1) news websites, (2) web forums, (3) media distribution, (4) websites for medical information, (5) online gaming, and (6) “cultural” websites, as vague as that sounds.

If you’re going into any of these fields, you’re going to need to ask MIIT first before you begin filling out your documentation for the ICP license. Here’s a direct message from a mod on the Aliyun forums asking about what the process is if a user wants to set up a forum website.

“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.”

Here’s the same message in its original forum post – just something to keep in mind.

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Pre-approval is also for those that are applying for Commercial ICP licenses. If this is the case, and your site needs pre-approval, Aliyun cannot work with you until you’ve spoken with the government. This can be done by contacting the MIIT in your respective province and getting a consultation. This is done on a case-by-case basis.

Okay, I’m Done. Did I Cover Everything?

Listen, this is not an easy procedure. It takes a lot of effort to set up your website and get that pesky ICP license. Is it worth it? Let me put it this way: the online market in China is expanding rapidly, and as it continues to grow, this process will become more and more necessary (and likely easier). If you have any burning questions about anything mentioned here, I suggest you contact the ICP Services and ask them.

Good luck!