Obtaining an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license in China

2021/08/30 | 7 mins

For people already doing business in China, or those who are planning to provide commercial services in China, an ICP license can provide additional convenience and advantages. ICP certification legalizes your website in China and allows you to benefit from smoother site load speeds, and ensures you gain a competitive advantage over your international competitors operating in China.

An ICP license or Internet Content Provider license is a state permit issued by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) that allows a China-based website to operate in the country legally. It has significant value as it will enable you to host your website on local Chinese servers. This article outlines the benefits of an ICP license, and how to get one.

MIIT

Benefits of an ICP license

These benefits highlight the importance of obtaining an ICP license for international business owners:

  • Enhanced user experience: The ICP license will help your website hosted in China load faster and gain access to more technology resources (e.g., China CDN) to provide local users with an enhanced user experience.
  • Helps in SEO: You can use the ‘.cn’ or the ‘.com.cn’ website extensions to help SEO and enhance your credibility. This will give you a foothold on Baidu (China’s equivalent of Google), as it prefers sites hosted in China.
  • Competitive advantage: As a business owner, you can be one step ahead of your competitors who host their websites outside China.

Things to remember before applying for an ICP license

Before discussing the actual ICP license application process, you must understand the difference between an ICP Filing and an ICP license.

  • ICP Filing (for non-commercial websites): Companies, including JVs (Joint Ventures), 100% foreign-owned entities, and 100% Chinese-owned companies, are eligible to make an ICP Filing. This is only for websites offering informational content, and for websites that do not intend to sell products or conduct business.
  • ICP license (for commercial websites): In addition to Chinese-owned business entities with a Chinese business license, JVs with a foreign investment of less than 50% can apply for an ICP license. The purpose is to exclude foreign companies that do not have Chinese joint ownership.

Chinese nationals are eligible to apply for an individual ICP filing. However, non-Chinese individuals must be physically present in China for a sufficient period to satisfy the basic registration requirements. These individuals may also need to fulfil the following criteria:

  • Have a Chinese landline or mobile phone number with an SMS facility
  • In many cases, having an Alipay account connected to a Chinese bank account. Depending on the province, there could be different rules, and MIIT may call the applicant to verify the reason for the ICP license application.
  • Access to a person who can accept and send your mail
  • Be fluent in Mandarin

If all documents are in order, the entire ICP license application process takes between 20 days to a month. However, if you wish to apply for the ICP Commercial license, the process usually takes 60-90 days.

Step-by-step process of acquiring an ICP license

You should follow these steps to obtain an ICP license for your Chinese website:

Step 1 - Register a domain and purchase the appropriate hosting plan.

Domains in the system

Step 2 - Choose your MIIT approved hosting provider and submit verification documents. (Please note hosting providers are required to be recognized by MIIT. Not all hosting providers are able to submit the documents on behalf of their applicants.)

If you are applying for ICP as a foreign business owner in China, you must contact a local hosting provider before applying for the ICP license. However, your website or app does not necessarily need to be live. Here is a tentative list of documents you will need to submit to your hosting provider for initial review before actual submission to the MIIT.

  • Certificate of the applicant
  • Company Business license (in China)
  • Company information (in China)
  • Contact person (in China)
  • Certification of the website administrator (must be a Chinese national).
  • Most recent audited financial reports
  • Proof showing you possess the required capital and expertise
  • Proof of deployed security measures on your website, such as information encryption, user information management policy, etc.
  • Approval from relevant government entities if you intend to provide services related to news & media, education, medicine, etc.
  • If you apply on behalf of an organization, you must submit a certification from the organization authorizing you to apply for the ICP license
  • You are expected to take pictures of yourself with your personal photo ID (e.g., ID cards, driver’s license, company registration certificates, etc.). You must ensure the documents and the faces are clearly visible, complete, and unobstructed. There could be specific instructions based on different hosting providers, such as having a specific background or specified colours of clothes.
  • The domain name holder certificate and the domain name confirmation, if you are in Beijing
  • A commitment letter and website construction plan if you apply from Guangdong Province
  • If you apply in Yunnan, Jiangxi, Heilongjiang, or Inner Mongolia, a certification of authorization is necessary

However, you should note that different provinces have their own rules. It is prudent to understand these nuances before you apply for an ICP license from different cities or provinces in China.

Additionally, as a business, you must register in the same province that issued you the business license. There are no restrictions if you apply as an individual. However, it is better to check the requirements because provinces like Hebei do not allow non-residents to apply for an ICP license.

In Shanghai, at the time of application, the domain name must be valid for more than six months. However, in Xinjiang, the requirement is to have the domain name valid for no less than three months.

Another such example is Beijing, where the enterprise ICP filing cannot be changed to an individual ICP filing. Whereas Guangdong, the entity of an ICP filing for an enterprise can be changed to another enterprise or to an individual, and there is no certification of change required.

An individual is only eligible to apply for an ICP filing in Tianjin, once he has reached the age of 18 years, but in Sichuan, the age requirement is 16 years.

Step 3 - Await the hosting provider review and the approval from the MIIT.

Once you apply for the ICP license, you must wait for the review. If all your documents are in order, the process should not take more than 20 days to receive your license. After approval of your documents, your hosting provider forwards them to MIIT for review. It would be best if you did not correspond or engage directly with MIIT during the review period. If MIIT requires clarification or rejects your application, it communicates with your hosting provider. Therefore, you must submit your clarifications to your hosting provider directly.

Step 4 - File with PSB (Public Security Bureau).

Within 30 days of receiving your ICP license, you must file with the Public Security Bureau. It is a security and criminal background check to confirm you have not committed illegal or unlawful acts. It is an online process you can do on the National Public Security Bureau of China’s Internet Security Administration Service Platform.

You will receive a confirmation SMS and email after completion of the registration process. However, you should note this platform requires all its submissions in Mandarin.

You can display the PSB Filing Number alongside the ICP Filing Number on your website’s footer.

Note: The ICP Filing Number (at the website’s footer) must have a hyperlink to the relevant bureaus in accordance with the regulations of the PSB (Public Security Bureau) and MIIT.

Here are some additional considerations you must know before applying for an ICP license:

  • Have your domain registered in China: You must provide your server’s IP and domain name when applying for the ICP license. If you use a domain name registered outside China, you cannot apply for an ICP license. You should update your ICP if you wish to change your servers in the future.
  • One ICP filing is enough: You can apply for one ICP Filing per domain. There is no need for additional ICP filings for second-level and sub-domain names.
  • Obtain MIIT approval: You should ensure that your domain name has MIIT approval.
  • Register with a mainland Chinese registrar: Your domain name registrar should also be on the MIIT approval list. Hence, it is advisable to register your domain name with a Mainland Chinese registrar.
  • Complete the real-name verification process: The real-name verification process is compulsory before applying for an ICP license. It takes around three days for the synchronization of data to the MIIT database. Therefore, you should apply for the ICP filing after three days of the real-name verification process.
  • Know which domains require approval: Certain domains like finance, games, news, medicine, etc., require pre-approval from Government authorities before submitting the ICP license application.

The pricing for obtaining an ICP license depends on the agency. The charges also depend on the number of domains you own. The greater the number of domains, the higher the cost. In addition, foreign nationals or foreign companies can use a proxy to apply on their behalf. However, this can be a tricky procedure, and is not recommended if you are applying for the ICP license for the first time.

Generally, the charges for an Individual ICP filing can be upwards of $20,000 (USD), which will include hiring a Chinese contact such as Liepin, ICP agency costs, translation services, Chinese server for hosting, and a domain name with .cn extension.

An ICP filing for business or a commercial ICP filing will cost you over $40,000 (USD) and can even touch upwards of $100,000 (USD), which will include all costs mentioned above plus the cost for obtaining a business license in China including the necessary expenses for operating the business, such as accounting services.

Conclusion

If you operate a website hosted in China or intend to, it is mandatory to register for an ICP license. Since the process can take considerable time, you should begin the process well in advance to avoid delaying your launch date.

Alternatively, if you want to avoid obtaining an ICP license altogether, you can choose to host your website in nearby regions (such as Hong Kong), and use Chinese CDNs. If you find the process too cumbersome, we can help make it easier for you. You can avail yourself of our consultancy services to launch your website in mainland China, obtaining (or renewing) your ICP license, conducting an ICP status check, and to fulfil other compliance requirements.

To learn more about succeeding in China, check out our other articles.
If you want to learn more about testing in China, check out our solutions.