A Primer on ICP Licenses

If you’ve decided that you’d rather work around the existing protocols of the Great Firewall of China and host your site within in China, headaches other than a blocked site may be waiting for you. When hosting within China, an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license, also known as a “Beian” (备案), may be required to ensure uptime.

In short, an ICP license is a permit issued by the Chinese government which allows a site to legally operate within the country. Under Chinese law all websites serving from a Chinese datacenter require an ICP license. Sites hosted from datacenters in Hong Kong or elsewhere around the world do not require such licenses.

Licenses are issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) at the Chinese provincial level and each have different requirements. You can see ICP licenses in action at the bottom of most Chinese-language sites on the web (even small home businesses).

Inset: the ICP License number for Caixin, a popular Chinese web portal.

Each site displays the issuing province and the license number issued by the requisite authority. This doesn’t mean that the content has been approved by the government, but rather that the company has correctly filed their online permit.

So, before you go apply for an ICP license yourself, it’s important to know a few caveats.  First, your business must to be registered within China in some capacity (such as a joint venture, Chinese company, or wholly-owned foreign enterprise). Second, if your business is not registered in China, or you are hosting outside the mainland, you may not apply for an ICP license.

Many people ask me if an ICP license will stop their site from being blocked in China. The most succint information, as described by Kendra Schaefer at Tuts+, says:

ICP licenses don’t technically have much to do with whether or not your site is visible or blocked in China. Sites with ICPs get taken offline all the time. Sites without them may be visible indefinitely. The ICP simply means you’ve been approved to host your website on a mainland Chinese server. That’s it.

Schaefer’s full tutorial (with commentary) on how to apply for an ICP license while purchasing web hosting is definitely worth a read. The list of required documents is quite long (including required photos of your company’s leadership) and the process gives a small glimpse of the bureaucracy you experience while living in China.

For a technical approach to applying and installing your ICP certification file (different from an SSL) on your website, Microsoft has a straightforward knowledge base document here.

English-language news sites based in China are not immune to ICP license requirements.
English-language news sites based in China are not immune to ICP license requirements.

If you’re a small-time company just trying to break into the Chinese market, or your Chinese audience makes up a small percentage of your overall market, it’s likely not worth going through the whole process of trying to host within China and deal with this.

If you are conducting e-commerce for Chinese customers and accepting AliPay (Chinese PayPal) or hosting a WordPress-based forum or news site primarily in Simplified Chinese (and not politically sensitive), it may be a good idea to host in mainland China and obtain a commercial ICP license.

It’s necessity entirely depends on your company or project’s needs. However, I’ve seen first-hand what happens when you don’t have an ICP license.

My first year in Shanghai I taught at a public elementary school. The company I worked for had created a Simple Machines Forum for English teachers to share teaching materials, tips and swap stories. It was pretty innocuous and entirely in English. Because the website only had a standard ICP license, and not the Commercial ICP required for forums, the local Shanghai government forced us to take down the forum. For a good few weeks I was flying blind on my connection to other teachers until it was moved to a Singapore-based BBPress site. So, don’t think your site is too small to have one if you’re hosting in China!

Have experience applying for an ICP license while hosting in China? Let me know in the comments!


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