Applying for an ICP license is important for any foreign company that wants to host a website or app in China.
What you’ll learn in this guide:
- What Is an ICP License?
- Do You Need an ICP License?
- The Difference between Personal and Commercial ICP Licenses.
- Required Documents.
- ICP Application Costs.
- China Hosting Options.
- Domain Name Registration.
- The ICP Application Process.
What Is an ICP License?
An ICP license is short for internet content provider license.
Under Chinese law, all websites and apps that are hosted within China must have one.
Websites hosted in China will list their ICP license in the footer.
Do You Need an ICP License?
ICP = CHINA HOSTING = SPEED
All in all, companies want their website to load quickly in China, and one of the surest ways is to host it in the Mainland itself.
But, hosting within China isn’t the only way to speed up a website. This can also be done by:
- Hosting nearer to China.
- Optimizing a website so that it doesn’t use resources that load slowly in China.
- Use a content delivery network (CDN).
For some companies, it makes sense to host their site in locations just outside the Mainland, such as Hong Kong. By doing so, they avoid the difficult paperwork involved in getting an ICP license, while still enjoying the benefits of having a web hosting provider close to China. Still, this won’t be as fast as a website hosted within “The Great Firewall.”
Overall, optimizing websites has yielded good results, but this takes relatively more technical know-how. For more information, see this post on optimizing a Shopify website to get the idea. The lessons can be applied to other content management systems (CMSs) as well.
CDNs can help speed up a website. They work by hosting the website’s resources in multiple locations around the world. However, the choice of CDN brings us back to the previous issues. Either the CDN has points within China—in which case you need an ICP license—or it has points only outside of the country.
Here are some more points to consider whether you want to host in China (and get an ICP license):
- The hosting location does not get your website blocked in China. If you steer clear of prohibited content or topics, it won’t get blocked.
- Even if your website is hosted outside mainland China, it can still rank well on the country’s largest search engines, including Baidu. Website speed does affect rankings, but the hosting location does not.
- It’s possible for non-Chinese individuals and businesses to buy a .cn domain name should you want to go down this route. (According to some official sources, you shouldn’t be able to buy a .cn domain name and host a site on it abroad, but it works.)
- This is obvious, perhaps, but if you already have a website outside China and choose to host one inside, keep in mind that you’ll need to maintain two websites.
- You do not need a China-hosted website to be able to advertise.
- Your in-country website, email services, and data are all completely accessible to the Chinese government and its agents.
TWO OTHER REASONS TO GET AN ICP LICENSE
You’ll also want an ICP license if you want to put a mobile app or game on a Chinese app store.
And, there are some cases where you will need a registered Chinese business to operate in China. For example, if you work in the medical industry, you might not be able to advertise at all unless you have a Chinese business entity and further documentation. Then, to advertise the business, you’ll need an ICP license.
FAKE REASONS TO GET AN ICP LICENSE
Let’s clear up a few myths.
- You do not need one to advertise your non-Chinese business (except in certain circumstances).
- You do not need one for your website to be indexed by Baidu.
The Difference between Personal and Commercial ICP Licenses
There are two types:
- Personal (ICP备案)
- Commercial (ICP许可证)
A personal ICP license is the basic-level document and can be used for general websites and apps. You would need it if your website/app is
- a business website without e-commerce functionality (like the one you’re reading now);
- a personal blog;
- a standalone Chinese-language website for a university; or,
- a mobile app/game that doesn’t have in-app advertising or purchases.
The commercial version grants all the benefits of a personal license, as well as websites/apps with e-commerce functionality. You’ll need a commercial ICP license if your website/app is
- an e-commerce website hosted in China;
- a mobile app or game that has in-app purchases; or,
- a mobile app or game that contains advertising.
Note: you could still choose to host an e-commerce website outside of China without an ICP license and probably even accept payments via Chinese payment methods.
For a personal ICP license application, you will require:
- Scan of ID card or passport of contact person (must be a Chinese national).
- Contact person’s phone number, email, and physical address.
- Website URL.
- Hosting information (such as FTP login information).
For a commercial ICP license application, you’ll require even more documentation:
- Scan of the company’s Chinese business license.
- Scan of ID card or passport of contact person (must be Chinese national).
- Scan of photo ID of the business owner (can be a foreign national).
- Signed ICP application forms—information must include:
- Official company name.
- Company registered address.
- Type of company.
- Contact person’s ID card or passport number.
- Contact person’s mobile number, office line number and email address.
- Website information, i.e. domain name, homepage, website name, type of website, and type of content.
- Note: certain businesses (e.g. news sites, publishing, education, healthcare, medicines, culture, and broadcasting) will need to include further documentation.
It’s worth remembering that the specific documents may vary depending on the province where you apply.
All forms must be completed in Chinese only.
ICP Application Costs
If you are a Chinese national, the application process we list below is free for you. And if you need a commercial license, you must also own a Chinese business entity.
However, if you are NOT Chinese or you do not have a Chinese business entity, that’s where things get tricky. One way of getting an ICP license is to use a “proxy”, which is a business and/or person who can apply for it on your behalf.
Of course, this requires trust because, from your point-of-view, what if the company disappears? What if they require exorbitant renewal fees one year from now? And what happens when the co-operation ends?
Conversely, your business partners may also have concerns about the potential risks of working with you. From their perspective, what if you add illegal content to your website?
This is a bit of a grey area overall, but we’ve seen it work.
Alibaba’s Aliyun service advertises personal ICP “consulting” services for 5,100 to 8,200 USD. They will, presumably, apply for the ICP on your behalf, although they will call it “consulting” just to be safe.
For our clients, we previously charged 700 USD/year for personal ICP applications and 2,200 USD/year for commercial applications. We never sold it as a standalone service because of the potential trust issues. Instead, we sold this as part of an overall marketing solution. The risk was low for us because we were in control of the websites and content.
China Hosting Options for Small Businesses
We’ve tried several different hosting options within China, and the one we keep going back to is “west.cn.” This should give you a decent idea of what it costs to get good-value hosting for a basic website.
The Yunfeng B plan costs 288 Yuan/year and provides the following:
- 2G of file storage space.
- 40G of monthly traffic.
- 500MB database space.
- Server supports MySQL, PHP, ASP, Windows, GZip, etc. See the link for a full list.
It’s not expensive at all, but the small storage limit is unusual compared to cheap US hosting plans.
Domain Name Registration
Should you get a .com domain, .cn, or something else?
You don’t really need a .cn domain name, but it can be helpful.
For businesses that already have a .com for their main website, we recommend getting a .cn domain name for the Chinese website. This helps users know that the .cn website is meant specifically for the Chinese market.
Anyway, you’ll need to decide which domain name to use before you go ahead with the ICP license application.
After you’ve signed up for hosting, go through the domain name registration process on west.cn or your choice of host. It’s a very simple process.
ICP Application Process
The best way to apply (for either commercial or personal reasons) is to go through the hosting company you are using. All hosting companies in China provide the ICP application service.
Depending on the type of website and the province where the company is registered, the application will take between three to six weeks.
Below is a step-by-step guide to completing the process. These steps were for our hosting provider and location, but the steps you’ll need to follow will be similar. Still, expect some speed bumps along the way!
Step 1 – Go to the hosting provider’s ICP license application page.
Step 2 – Register the account.
Step 3 – Fill in personal details and company information.
Step 4 – Upload personal and company material into the ICP application system.
Step 5 – The application system will then verify the information. This will be completed in two to three business days.
Step 6 – After verification, you need to take a photo of the website owner at a local verification point (available in many Chinese cities).
The important part to remember here is that the image must have an official background. You’ll have to go to a verification point to do this and pay to have the photo taken.
It’s also possible to get a copy of the background curtain shipped to you.
Step 7 – After passing photo verification, send off the paper application and business license. Below is a copy of the form to be filled in.
The completed form can be scanned and sent off electronically.
Step 8 – Wait.
At this point, the application might be inspected by a government department. This can take 15 to 20 working days.
- While awaiting government approval, your site can officially go online.
- If your application is denied due to the submission of incorrect or missing information, you will have to go through the process again.
Step 9 – Finally, a verification link will be sent to your mobile phone. You need to click the link and verify, or the whole application process will fail. Note that this link might be sent to the contact person or website owner.
Once the license has been approved, you will receive an email from the government office.
Step 10 – After you have the ICP License and the website is accessible, go to http://www.beian.gov.cn. This is the National Internet Security Management Service Platform, and it’s yet another bureaucratic government organization responsible for overseeing the Internet in China. As far as us marketers are concerned, it’s use is the same as an ICP License. If you don’t have it, you can’t host in China. The only good news is that you can submit information that you already used for the ICP process.
Getting an ICP license is a long and complicated process. Although the steps above look simple, we’ve often run into unexpected issues, even though we’ve gone through the process a whole bunch of times.
China Hosting and ICP License FAQ
I know the details above can be confusing. So here’s some of the information again.
- Can we host a website in mainland China?
If your website doesn’t include prohibited content, you can host it in China. However, you’ll need an ICP license.
- Do we need to host a website in mainland China?
It’s unlikely that you’ll need to host in China, but you might want to. The most common reason companies want to host in China is to provide their mainland Chinese users with a faster and more reliable website.
- Will a website hosted in China be visible in other countries?
Yes, websites hosted in China are also accessible in other countries, but they will probably be slower than a website hosted elsewhere.
Can we apply for an ICP license on our own?
ICP licenses are assigned to Chinese individuals and Chinese businesses (for commercial licenses).
If you apply for ICP for us, won’t we be left without a website once we finish the co-operation?
If you have another company and/or person apply on your behalf, and that company/person disappears, you do risk losing the license.
Do I need a .cn domain name?
No. You can also get an ICP license for .com websites in China.
To run paid search ads, does our website need to be hosted in China?
No, not usually. Some industries are more restricted. You might need a website hosted in China, as well as a Chinese business entity that is authorized to do business in a certain industry.
What if I change hosting providers? Do I need to apply for the license again?
No, you can apply to have it transferred over.
I’d be interested in moving the hosting closer to mainland China, but not in Hong Kong. Are South Korea, Singapore, or Japan good options?
Closer is better, but we don’t have enough data to give a definitive answer to this question. However, we’ve seen good results from sites hosted in these areas.
What if I host my e-commerce system outside of China, but I want to create a WeChat store? Is an ICP license still needed?
No, they are not required for WeChat Stores.
What type of license do mobile apps and games require?
If the game has in-app purchases or advertising, it will need a commercial ICP license (ICP许可证). But if it doesn’t, a personal ICP license (ICP备案) is fine.
Does the company applying for an ICP License have to be registered in Mainland China or can it be registered in Hong Kong?
Only companies established in Mainland China may apply for a Commercial ICP License.
What is the “National Internet Security Information Management Platform”?
After getting an ICP License, you will need to perform yet another registration. For marketers, this is just another hassle. The registration can be perfomed at http://www.beian.gov.cn using the same information used earlier in the ICP registration process. This must be done within 30 days of the ICP License being obtained, and the website must be online.