Home » All You Need to Know About the ICP License in China: Your Key to Operate in the Chinese Digital Landscape

All You Need to Know About the ICP License in China: Your Key to Operate in the Chinese Digital Landscape

The ICP License in China, a vital permit for any online business wishing to penetrate the Chinese digital landscape, is often shrouded in mystery and confusion for overseas companies. Clients often ask me what exactly is an ICP license and whether they need one to operate a business in China.

This article aims to demystify the concept of ICP license, its types, requirements, application process, and the benefits it offers, providing a comprehensive guide to navigating the intricacies of acquiring this essential permit.

What is an ICP License?

The ICP (Internet Content Provider) License (or ICP permit) is a permit issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) of China. It is mandatory for all websites hosted on servers within mainland China. This permit was established to maintain stringent control over the digital content that websites and mobile apps can publish within China’s borders. The primary goal of the ICP license is to

  • ensure that online businesses comply with local laws and regulations
  • provide a safe platform for businesses to operate seamlessly online in China.

The requirement of obtaining an ICP license was instated in September 2000 by the Telecommunications Regulations of the People’s Republic of China and Articles 3 and 4 of Administrative Measures on Internet-Based Information Systems. Here’s what these 2 articles state:

Article 3. Internet-based information services are divided into services of a commercial nature and services of a non-commercial nature.

Commercial internet-based information services refer to compensatory services that provide information to or create web pages for online users through the Internet.

Non-commercial internet-based information services refer to non-compensatory services that supply, through the Internet, to online users information that is open to and shared by the general public.

Article 4. The State shall implement a license system for internet-based information services of a commercial nature, and implement a filing-for-record system for internet-based information services of a non-commercial nature.

No one shall engage in internet-based information services without having obtained a license or having completed the filing-for-record procedures.

Understanding the Two Types of ICP Permits

There are two types of ICP permits available in China: ICP Filing and Commercial ICP License, each serving a different purpose based on the nature of the website or online service. Understanding the differences between these two permits is crucial for businesses operating in China.

ICP Filing (ICP备案)

The first type of ICP permit is the ICP Filing. Also known as ‘ICP Bei’an’ in Chinese or ICP Recordal. this permit is mainly for non-commercial websites or individuals who want to publish content on the Internet. The main purpose of the ICP Filing is to register and record basic information about the website, such as its domain name, server information, and contact details of the website operator. An ICP Filing ensures the website’s compliance with the regulations in Measures for the Administration of Internet Information Services and Registration Administration Measures for Non-Commercial Internet Information Services.

The ICP Filing is mandatory for all websites operating in China, and failure to obtain this permit can result in penalties, including fines and website shutdowns.

Obtaining an ICP Filing is a relatively simple process that involves submitting an application to the local government authorities. 

Commercial ICP License (ICP许可证)

The second type of ICP permit is the Commercial ICP License. It is also known as ICP Zheng or ICP Commercial License. Its official name is 信息服务业务(仅限互联网信息服务. This license is required for websites that engage in e-commerce or other commercial activities. In general, these are large-scale commercial websites that entail online payments for goods or services.

Obtaining a Commercial ICP License is more complex and requires additional documentation and verification processes. This license is only granted to applicants who meet specific stringent criteria, and acquiring it is often more complex and time-consuming than obtaining an ICP Filing. In addition to the basic information required for the ICP Filing, applicants for the Commercial ICP License need to provide business licenses, tax registration certificates, and other relevant documents proving their legitimacy as a commercial entity. The Commercial ICP License allows websites to conduct online transactions and accept payments from customers within China.

Who Needs an ICP Permit in China?

Any entity wishing to host a website or an application within mainland China must obtain an ICP License. It’s a legal obligation for businesses operating in China’s digital sphere. Without this license, your website, or application runs the risk of being shut down or blacklisted by MIIT, causing disruptions to your business operations.

The ICP filing is necessary for both individuals and businesses who want to host a website on a Chinese server and establish an online presence in China.

As previously explained in this article, businesses need to understand which type of ICP permit they need based on their online activities. If your website only intends to publish content or provide information, then obtaining an ICP Filing is sufficient. However, if your website involves e-commerce or any form of online transaction, then obtaining a Commercial ICP License is necessary.

Benefits of Acquiring an ICP License

An ICP License offers several advantages including:

Web hosting in China and faster loading times

Obtaining an ICP license allows you to host your website on a server in Mainland China. Naturally, this will help to decrease your loading times, reduce latency, and improve the overall user experience for visitors accessing the site within China. The faster loading times result in improved user engagement and satisfaction, ultimately benefiting the website’s performance in the Chinese market.

Obtain a .cn domain name

An ICP license is required to purchase and use “.cn” and “.com.cn” domain name. You don’t necessarily need a .cn domain to operate in China, but case studies show that Baidu strongly favors the.CN domain names. Local domain names also tend to get indexed and rank faster on Baidu. In other words, operating on a “.cn” or “.com.cn” domain name will improve your SEO and credibility in China.

Enhanced search engine visibility on Baidu

Having an ICP license can positively impact your website’s performance on Baidu, the main Chinese search engine. While Baidu’s official stance on whether having an ICP license affects SEO is unclear, it’s a well-known fact that hosting websites in Mainland China (under an ICP license) can lead to better indexing in Chinese search engines, including Baidu. This could potentially result in improved SEO performance and visibility for your website on Baidu.

Integrate with Chinese payment gateways and mobile payment systems

Having an ICP license can help you integrate Chinese payment gateways on your website. With a Commercial ICP license, businesses can operate e-commerce websites with online payment services in China, enabling them to tap into the large online consumer market in the country. Without an ICP license, businesses can integrate online payments via UnionPay cards, but most Chinese users prefer mobile payment systems such as Alipay and WeChat Pay. Obtaining a Commercial ICP license is required for most Chinese payment systems.

Publish apps and games on Chinese app stores

According to recent regulations, all mobile apps and games published on Chinese app stores are required to have either an ICP Filing or an ICP License. The exact permit depends on the nature of the app or game.

A commercial ICP License is required for:

  • paid games or games that support in-app payments and/or in-app advertising
  • apps that have in-app payments and/or in-app advertising
  • app stores or game stores

An ICP Filling is required for:

  • all apps and games published or distributed on Chinese app stores.

In the past, major app stores, including the Apple App Store and Baidu App Store, were not enforcing this policy. But, Baidu started enforcing this policy in 2020 and starting from September 2023, Apple also requires app developers to acquire an ICP filing or an ICP license for each app they want to publish. Existing apps, that have already been published on the Apple App Store before September 2023, must provide a valid ICP Filing number before March 31, 2024, otherwise, they will be removed from app stores in China.

Open a Baidu Ads account and advertise on Baidu

An ICP license may also be required to advertise on Baidu Ads, also called Baidu Tui Guang (百度推广): the Google Ads equivalent on Baidu. This license is a must if you want to open and operate a domestic Baidu account: in this case, you need a Chinese business license, and an ICP license and your website should be hosted in Mainland China. However, if you don’t have a Chinese business license, and are unable to obtain an ICP license, you can apply for an account through the Baidu Hong Kong representative office.

Improved competitiveness

Obtaining an ICP license can significantly improve your competitiveness in China by allowing you to host your website locally, ensuring faster load speeds and better user experience, which are crucial factors in the highly competitive Chinese online market. Additionally, having an ICP license can enhance your website’s search engine rankings on platforms like Baidu, further boosting your visibility and competitiveness in the Chinese market.

It will also give you a competitive edge against businesses hosted outside of mainland China.

Eligibility Criteria for ICP License and ICP Filing

The eligibility criteria for acquiring an ICP License or an ICP Filing varies based on the type of website/applicant. Also, certain industries, such as finance and healthcare, may have additional requirements and regulations when obtaining an ICP permit.

Eligibility for ICP Filing

To apply for an ICP filling, you need to be:

  • Chinese companies with a valid Chinese business license.
  • Chinese individuals with a state-issued Chinese identity card.
  • Foreign individuals who can fulfill basic registration requirements.

Eligibility for Commercial ICP License

To apply for a Commercial ICP license, you need to be:

  • Chinese-owned businesses with a valid Chinese business license,
  • Wholly foreign-owned businesses with a Chinese business license,
  • Sino-foreign joint ventures where the foreign investment does not exceed 49%.

Special cases

In some rare situations, some companies or individuals may not be eligible to obtain an ICP commercial license or an ICP filing. For example, if the proportion of foreign investment in a joint venture exceeds 49%, likely, that an ICP license will not be issued to the company. If the applicant is a joint venture business, more than 50% of the company should be owned by a Chinese company.

Also, a foreign national who is not currently resident in China may face difficulties in obtaining an ICP filing. While foreign citizens are not legally required to be physically present in China, they will need a Chinese cell phone and landline number, a Chinese Aplipay account, and a designated representative to mail and handle the paper copy application for them. Naturally, these registration requirements complicate the process for foreigners who are not physically present in China during the application process. 

Can Foreign Companies Receive an ICP License?

Foreign companies without a legal presence in China are not eligible to receive either an ICP Filing or an ICP License.  And, as previously explained, a representative office in China isn’t enough to obtain an ICP permit – the company must have a registered Chinese business license.

A foreign company can’t apply for an ICP Filing or an ICP License.

To obtain an ICP License in China, individuals or businesses are advised to collaborate with a company or a digital marketing agency experienced in assisting with ICP Filings and Licenses. This ensures adherence to the correct procedures in obtaining an ICP license and hosting in China.

Don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, if you need assistance with acquiring an ICP license and essential information for the successful operation of your business or project in China.

Process to Obtain an ICP Permit

To apply for either type of ICP permit, businesses need to go through a process that involves submitting all required documents to the relevant government authorities. Also, they must apply and register in the province where their Chinese business license was issued. Fortunately, this restriction does not apply to individual ICP filling.

The application process can be time-consuming and may require assistance from professional consultants who are familiar with the local regulations and procedures. It is also important for businesses to ensure that their websites comply with Chinese laws and regulations regarding online content.

In a nutshell, obtaining an ICP License or ICP Filing involves a four-step procedure. This process can be completed entirely online, but it requires the assistance of a Chinese speaker, as all the forms are available only in Mandarin Chinese. That’s another reason why my advice is to collaborate with a digital marketing consultant in China who is experienced in facilitating ICP Filings and Licenses. This partnership guarantees adherence to the correct procedures and access to comprehensive information essential for the successful operation of your business or project in China.

Below, I have provided a concise explanation of the application process for obtaining an ICP license or an ICP filing.

Step 1: Secure a Local Hosting Provider

Before initiating the application process, securing a local hosting provider is essential. Although the website or application does not need to be live at this stage, having a local hosting provider is a prerequisite for the application process. Some of the biggest website hosting companies in mainland China are :

Step 2: Gather and Submit Required Documentation

Once your local hosting provider is in place, you must gather the documents required for the ICP application. These documents typically include business licenses, identification documents, and various certificates. For companies, a Chinese business license and proof of registered capital are required, among other documents. For individuals, valid identification such as a Chinese ID card or an international passport, and proof of residence are necessary.

Step 3: Await Host Review and MIIT Approval

Upon submission of the necessary documents, the application undergoes a review by the hosting provider. If approved, the application is then forwarded to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) for further review.

Step 4: File with the Public Security Bureau (PSB)

The final step in the process involves applying for a Public Security Bureau (PSB) filing within 30 days of receiving the ICP License. This filing is essentially a criminal background check to confirm that the applicant is not involved in any illegal activities.

How long does it take to Obtain an ICP license or an ICP filling?

The application process for an ICP Commercial License takes about 60 days or two months, while the average time to obtain an ICP Filing is 3 weeks.
For an ICP Filing, the required documents include a company business license, domain certificate, and details of the legal representative and webmaster. On average, the whole process takes around 3 to 4 weeks.
On the other hand, obtaining an ICP Commercial License is much slower. The applicant needs to provide many papers, to prove that he meets content laws, has a legal entity in China, etc. The application may take 60-90 days for processing. After submission of all the required documents, the usual time for receiving the ICP commercial license is 20 days to one month.

Do foreign companies always need an ICP license?

The significance of the ICP license cannot be overstated, especially given the substantial and expanding online consumer base in Mainland China. However, international businesses must carefully weigh the advantages and challenges associated with obtaining an ICP license. As explained in this article, the process of obtaining this license can be intricate and bureaucratic, posing significant challenges for foreign companies. Furthermore, hosting within China comes with its own set of issues, such as poor customer support and limited Internet Service Provider (ISP) options. Therefore, the decision to pursue an ICP license should be driven by the specific goals and priorities of the business.

For companies that are not primarily focused on the Chinese market, the effort and resources required to obtain an ICP license may not align with their overall strategic objectives. In such cases, the return on investment in terms of time and resources for securing the license may not justify the pursuit.

On the other hand, there are alternative strategies that foreign businesses can consider to navigate the complexities of the Chinese online space without necessarily obtaining an ICP license. I personally advise these strategies to foreign businesses aiming to “test” the Chinese market and don’t yet have ambitious business goals in China: 

Host your website in Hong Kong

One viable alternative for businesses is to host their websites near China. For example, a popular location for website hosting is Hong Kong, China SARHong Kong, as a special administrative region, operates under different laws and regulations than mainland China, making it an attractive alternative for hosting websites serving the Chinese market. By hosting in Hong Kong, businesses can bypass the need for an ICP license while still being geographically close to their target audience, ensuring better website performance and speed. This approach allows foreign businesses to cater to the Chinese market without the complexities and challenges associated with obtaining an ICP license.

Use a Chinese CDN partner

Another important point to consider is the CND. Foreign businesses who want to gain better visibility in the Chinese market should consider using Chinese Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) to improve website performance in China. By leveraging a China Content Delivery Network, they can speed up their site performance in China, addressing challenges such as slow load times due to limited connectivity and the Great Firewall of China causing internet traffic delays. While no international CDNs have CDN nodes in Mainland China, there are a few international CDNs that have established partnerships and collaborate with major Chinese CDN providers such as Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, BaishanCloud, and ChinaCache. These partnerships help international websites address challenges such as slow load times and internet traffic delays caused by the Great Firewall of China, ensuring a better user experience for businesses tapping into the Chinese market.

Localize your website for China

Localizing your website for China involves adapting your online presence to the unique online ecosystem and regulatory environment of the Chinese market. This goes beyond mere translation and includes addressing technical and legal requirements, localized messages, and content.

Of course, the first step would be to localize your content (in Mandarin Chinese). It’s crucial to plan and research, identify content for translation, and decide who will handle the translation. Then, you must also consider using Chinese subtitles for your videos, hosting videos on Chinese servers, integrating local payment processing, and adapting to Chinese user expectations for navigation and SEO.

Website localization is essential for effectively tapping into the growing Chinese consumer market and requires a well-thought-out strategy and planning. You don’t need an ICP license to work on this crucial element of your digital marketing strategy in China.

Evaluate and assess the costs

Ultimately, the decision regarding the necessity of an ICP license for a business targeting the Chinese market should be informed by a comprehensive evaluation of the business strategy, market objectives, and potential risks. While the ICP license offers unfettered access to the Chinese market, businesses can explore alternative approaches, such as hosting near China and modifying their websites to comply with local regulations, to effectively engage with the Chinese audience without the immediate need for an ICP license. By carefully assessing the unique circumstances and priorities of the business, companies can make an informed decision regarding the pursuit of an ICP license and develop a tailored strategy for success in the dynamic and promising Chinese market.

A short-term solution

It’s important to consider the long-term implications of such decisions. Without the ICP license, websites targeting the Chinese market are at risk of being slow or even blocked by Chinese authorities, highlighting the importance of compliance with local regulations. And once your site is blocked in China, it may be challenging to unblock it. Therefore, if you aim for a substantial online presence in China, pursuing the ICP route is advisable for sustained success, and obtaining an ICP license is crucial for seamless access to the Chinese market.

Penetrating the Chinese digital landscape requires a thorough understanding of its unique regulations. An ICP License or ICP Filing is a critical stepping stone in this journey. While the process may seem daunting, with the right guidance and resources, it can be navigated with ease. Understanding the nuances of ICP licensing can unlock the vast potential of China’s thriving digital ecosystem for your business.

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