Building your web presence in China is serious work. To start, you’ll need an ICP License, but there’s not plenty of info on how to set this up online. And if there is info, it’s usually not in English – that is why this article was written. It will 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.
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 is an example highlighted in red; this particular one is from a popular news site called Sina.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.
Here’s another ICP license, this one from 163.com (NetEase):
The following entities may apply for a business ICP License (or at least they’re eligible to, whether or not you actually get the license depends):
The following may apply for individual ICP licenses:
A third option, a commercial ICP license (or e-commerce ICP license), is 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):
It’s a pretty small threshold and if you don’t fit these criteria, you can’t get one. Because of this, this guide will primarily focus on Basic ICP licenses since these commercial ones are tedious in regards to who they choose.
It’s much clearer, however, who can’t apply for an ICP license.
If you fit these credentials, you’re set to apply for an ICP license.
You only need an ICP license if you are hosting your website in mainland China. 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.
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.
Firstly, 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.
Secondly, 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.
Thirdly, 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 fall into any of these categories, 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.
Fourthly, 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 leeway 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. 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.
The most popular region is by far Beijing and its restrictions are probably best, although feel free to conduct some research on this and find out which suits you best.Just bear in mind that internet laws change all the time in China. What is true today might not necessarily be true at a later date, so keep that in mind while reading through this guide.
Given that it’s so complicated, a brief overview would be useful before this article gets into the step-by-step guide. 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 – after which, you site goes live.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology even offers a flowchart to better illustrate this process. Here’s the original chart with a translated version.
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.
Aliyun.com is China’s most popular shop for everything related to internet hosting and most use their services to apply for ICP licenses.
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.
Step I: Registering Your Domain in China with Aliyun
Assuming you already purchased a host and registered a domain name, the first thing you need to do is fill in your domain and server data on your ICP license registration form. Make sure it is purchased from a Chinese provider, though, otherwise you won’t be to receive an ICP license. 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. Below is a screenshot of the registration screen.
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. 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, because of their popularity and size, they have successfully integrated ICPs, hosting, and domains which makes the entire process much easier.
(Quick note: If you’re outside of China, you’re going to need to call Net.cn to make a purchase. This is because the online site requires information that can’t submit if you’re not a national like a Chinese state ID number, a Chinese landline, and a Chinese payment method.)
Step II: Get a BeiAn Service Number
Go back to your Aliyun.com user account and get yourself a BeiAnservice number. This is an ID that will bind your server to your domain. The BeiAn Service Number puts everything together – your server IP, domain name, and ICP application. You may have more than one and these are located on your Aliyun user profile.
Once you log in, click the “Apply” button which is illustrated below. The application is often approved immediately.
After this step, you’ll be able to find all your BeiAnService Numbers now in your user profile.
Before going further, you’ll need to bind your BeiAnnumber 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 BeiAn management panel.
Step III: Register Yourself in the Aliyun ICP Management System
You now should have your server, domain, and a BeiAnservice number. 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.
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 put in all the crucial information. You’ll need to enter you BeiAnservice 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 plug in your Service Number.
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.
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.
You’re now 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 V: Time to Get Your Photo Taken
Recently, Aliyun and the MIIThave 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, but there are locations in most major Chinese cities.
However, there is an alternative which might be much easier: Aliyun can ship you an official mu bucurtain 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 of right, Aliyun does not ship mu buinternationally. However, you could have the mu bushipped to someone in China and then that individual can ship it to you 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 VI: Wait for MIIT to Approve
So let’s cover what you 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 VII: Congratulations!
You are now a proud holder of an ICP license. Hopefully it was worth it.
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