What is an ICP License? Do I really need It?
Having spoken with hundreds of businesses, one of the most frequently asked questions we get is: "Do I need an ICP License?"
The short answer is YES, you will need an ICP license if you plan to have a web presence in China legally.
"Wait, what? I searched ICP on Google, and everyone is saying 'No, you don't need one!' "
Let me guess, they also try to tell you that getting an ICP costs a lot of time and money, and there will be ways to avoid having an ICP, such as hosting your website in Hong Kong, outsourcing to another partner... right?
Don't be misled to take the "shortcut" by operating a website in China without an ICP - some people may believe they've discovered a shortcut that in actuality could be detrimental.
As a cross-border company having worked with several fortune 500 enterprises and with offices in the U.S. and Shanghai, we wanted to offer some insights from an insider's view into what ICP is and why you need it.
What is ICP?
ICP stands for Internet Content Provider. An ICP certification is a permit issued at the province level by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).
Many overseas agencies would think that the only reason for the Chinese government to require websites have ICP is to make a profit out of companies and individuals -- which is entirely not true.
It's actually pretty easy to understand. Each industry has its standards. If you want to open a restaurant, you need to have a permit. If you want to sell groceries, you also need a seller permit. The same goes for ICP if you want to operate a website on the internet.
As China maintains strict control over websites, games, apps, and e-commerce within its borders, any “internet content provider” must first register for licenses with the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) to be able to post information and/or do business online. The requirement was instated in September 2000 by the Telecommunications Regulations of the People’s Republic of China.
The purpose of ICP filing is to prevent illegal website business activities on the Internet and combat the spread of bad Internet information. If the website does not have an ICP, it is likely to be shut down after being investigated. ICP is the basis for ensuring the legality of Internet operations in China. You can say that ICP is like an ID card for enterprises to access the Internet.
What types of ICP permits are available?
According to Telecommunications Regulations of the People’s Republic of China, described in article 3 of Administrative Measures on Internet-Based Information Systems:
Internet information services are mainly divided into two categories: commercial and non-commercial.
- Commercial Internet information services refer to the provision of paid information to Internet users or the creation of web pages through the Internet, for example, e-commerce websites, membership sites, etc.
- Non-commercial Internet information services refer to service activities that provide open and shared information to Internet users for free through the Internet. Such as a static website to showcase your work and portfolio.
As a result, there are 2 types of ICP licenses, depending on the type of business you run:
ICP License (ICP许可证)
An ICP License allows a Chinese company to publish a website, platform, or software in China that generates revenue or provides a platform for others to generate revenue. It is also known as an ICP Zheng, ICP Commercial License, or a B25 ICP License, as it is regulated under category B25 in the Value-Added Telecommunication Services (VATS) licensing system.
This type of ICP is required for any website that generates revenue directly from the it, such as:
any commercial website (a website that is not purely informational)
paid games or games that have in-app payments and/or in-app advertising
apps that have in-app payments and/or in-app advertising
app stores or game stores
online marketplace for goods, services or information
live streaming platforms (although an additional, separate license is also required for this as well)
Thus, if you generate revenue from advertising or online sales and perform business that requires payments using your platform, you will need this type of ICP license. An ICP License is issued on a per-company basis. You will still need to submit an ICP Filing for each top-level domain you use.
ICP Filing (ICP备案) :
The ICP filing is a legal requirement to host a website in China. It is also referred to as an ICP Beian or ICP Recordal. It is required for any non-commercial websites by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and administered at the provincial level on a per-domain basis. You will need a separate ICP Filing for each top-level domain.
As the name implies, this type of ICP is for informational and non-commercial websites. The public can access these sites, but you aren’t allowed to sell your products or services with this license.
ICP filing (Bei'an) is what we often call website filing, which is used by the government to determine the authenticity and legitimacy of website operators. It doesn't give you a permit, but only a serial number to display on your website footer so that your business information can be tracked through MIIT at any time by the officials.
After purchasing a domain name, your ICP Filing(Bei’an) must be registered and accessible through an online database. No paper certificate will be issued. The local communications administration (city or province) is entrusted to review and analyze your server address, and then the domain name your purchased can be activated, that is, the website can be officially activated after the ICP filing.
To put shortly, the differences between ICP license and ICP filing (Bei’an) are:
All websites legally operated in China need to have ICP filing to activate your domain name, but only those that provide paid information services need to apply for an ICP license.
Brands you know that have ICP already?
An ICP License is issued on a per-company basis. You will still need to submit an ICP Filing for each top-level domain you use. These numbers follow the format 京ICP证12345678号, where the first character indicates the province where the license was issued.
Since no paper certificate will be issued for ICP filing, the ICP filing numbers are typically displayed in small print on website footers with a single character representing the Chinese province the license was issued in, then the letters "ICP" followed by the actual ICP number itself. The number can be displayed anywhere, technically, so long as it is clear and visible.
Let's take Nike.com/cn as an example, the 沪ICP备14009339号 is its ICP file number (备案 Bei'an). The file number is composed of short name of the province where the filing was issued + ICP备 + file number + 号. Take Nike's example, 沪 is the short name of Shanghai, and its file number is 14009339.
You might also notice another series number in the footer, 沪公网安备31011002000177号. It is called PSB (Public Security Bureau) Bei'an, (PSB registration, also known as PSB Bei'An or psb备案), which is another file number that can be completed entirely online via the Internet Security Administration Service Platform of the National Public Security Bureau of China.
Simply put, the differences between ICP Bei'an and PSB Bei'an are:
ICP Bei'an is required by the MIIT, and can only be gotten through a Chinese server provider. (To learn more about this, you can also read our article about How To Get An ICP)
PSB Bei'an is required by the public security bureau. After successfully getting the ICP Bei'an, you can apply by yourself through the platform of the Ministry of Public Security. This step is like a criminal background check to confirm the applicant is not involved in criminal or illegal activities.
To legally operate a website in mainland China, you will need both an ICP Bei'an and a PSB Bei'an.
Let's look at McDonalds.com.cn for another example. It also has both ICP Bei'an and a PSB Bei'an clearly stated in the footer of its website.
So is Apple.com.cn.
Who Needs an ICP License?
Although you might be told by many agencies and individuals that only certain types of enterprises and websites need to acquire an ICP license, the truth is that anyone who wants to operate a website in China needs to have an ICP.
According to Telecommunications Regulations of the People’s Republic of China, described in article 4 of Administrative Measures on Internet-Based Information Systems:
Those who have not obtained a license or have not gone through the filing procedures shall not engage in Internet information services.
The ICP license is a necessary qualification for any website operated in China. You must apply for an ICP license if you try to operate a business website in China. Otherwise, it is considered an illegal operation. Once suspected of operating illegally, they will be fined or even shut down the website.
According to Telecommunications Regulations of the People’s Republic of China, described in article 19 of Administrative Measures on Internet-Based Information Systems:
Anyone who violates the provisions of these regulations by engaging in commercial Internet information services without obtaining a business license, or providing services beyond the permitted items, shall be ordered by the telecommunications management agency of the province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the Central Government to make corrections within a time limit. If there is no illegal income or the illegal income is less than 50,000 yuan, a fine of not less than 100,000 yuan but not more than 1 million yuan shall be imposed; if the circumstances are serious, the website shall be ordered to shut down.
Those who engage in Internet information services without obtaining a business license, or provide services beyond the permitted items, shall be ordered by the local telecommunications management agency to make corrections within a time limit.
Can I avoid getting an ICP?
If you want to host a website in mainland China, you must get an ICP Filing.
Of course, you can host a website outside of mainland China that targets the Chinese market, which may be accessible to some Chinese users. For example, some businesses will host their Chinese website in Hong Kong because the rules for hosting there are different. However, websites that do not have an ICP Filing are at risk of being blocked in China. From January 1, 2018, you cannot apply for an ICP Filing using a domain name registered outside of China. If you change servers in the future, you must update your ICP as well.
See here about Why Hosting A Website In Hong Kong Might Not Work?
Also keep in mind, that if your content is hosted on a shared IP address, you would be blocked if anyone else using that same IP gets blocked for any reason. Once your site is blocked, there is no way to make it unblocked. So this is highly risky and not recommended.
As you can see, all enterprises that operate a website in China need to apply for ICP filing, to avoid unnecessary risks, such as websites being shut down by the government.
We help companies success in China with confidence, send us an email and schedule a time with our experts to make your company successfully landed in China!