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ICP China license: Understanding the essentials and an alternative

June 7, 2021 |   Nicolas Chu

To host a website in mainland China, Internet Content Provider (ICP) certification is required.

So, any businesses or organisation wanting a fast load speed for their website in China must obtain a filing or licence issued by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

However, as you will learn towards the end of this article, there is another option that removes much of the work, time and effort required to organise ICP certification.

ICP Licenses or the long way to fast load time in China

The two types of ICP certification

The ICP certification you need depends on the kind of business or service you plan to offer in China:

  • An ICP Filing (ICP ‘Bei An’, ICP备案), also known as ‘ICP recordal’, is required for general content providers whose website only provides information.
  • An ICP License (ICP ‘Zheng’, ICP经营许可证) is required for e-commerce websites with online payment integration.

Who can apply?

ICP Filings can be applied for by partially or wholly owned Chinese businesses, Chinese individuals with a state-issued Chinese passport and foreign individuals with a foreign passport who are physically present in China for the application process.

An ICP License is generally only issued to foreign businesses when they are part of a joint venture with a Chinese business that holds at least 51% ownership of the entity. A business also needs to have at least 1 million RMB (approx. US$150,000) in registered capital when applying.

Location is key - fast and functional

While a website hosted outside of China may be browsed or transacted in China, China’s tight internet regulations mean there is a relatively high risk of it being blocked or restricted. And if this happens, not having gone through ICP certification means trying to rectify the problem is almost impossible as your site will not be recognised by Chinese authorities.

Empirical evidence shows that during big events, grand government meetings or nationwide celebrations, the Great Firewall tends to tighten restrictions on websites hosted outside of China. This causes slow load speeds, even if the website is free of prohibited content.

As a consequence, going through the ICP certification process and hosting your Chinese website on local servers will see you benefit from a regular, smoother site load speed, giving you a long-term, sustainable, competitive advantage over your international competitors in China.

Impact of ICP on Baidu search

Whether you need ICP certification if using Baidu PPC (pay per click) advertising is a question commonly posed by companies looking at marketing in China.

The answer, however, is not always clear because it is not Baidu enforcing licenses or requiring an ICP certification. So, you might still be able to open a Baidu account and work with the search engine on search engine marketing in China without certification, but you will be classified by Baidu as an overseas account and be managed via an overseas channel team.

Not having ICP certification also impacts your organic search ranking on Baidu and other Chinese search engines in a negative way. In general, websites without a license or filing will have lower ratings and exposure in Baidu non-paid search results.

Applying for ICP certification

The main requirement for obtaining ICP certification is fairly straightforward: your domain must abide by Chinese content laws, most notably not containing material related to terrorism, explosives, drugs, jurisprudence, gambling and a range of other prohibited acts.

However, the process of obtaining certification is not so simple (outlined below).

There are third-party agents available to help you through the process, but they will charge a service fee, although generally speaking, this is reasonably priced and worth the investment considering the long-term advantages and frequency of requirement changes.

ICP License vs. ICP Filling

As mentioned earlier, the general rule of thumb as to which certification you require comes down to whether you are creating a profit-making website hosted in China. If you are unable to host your website locally, you must at least get an ICP filing to ensure your website is officially recognised by the Chinese government.

In the past, some grey areas of ICP policy have been taken advantage of by wholly foreign-owned enterprises (WFOEs) in China that have profitable websites operating in the region but do not have licenses (only filings), using their location as the loophole. These WFOEs are located in Shanghai but transactions or payments on their site are made through servers located overseas. Because of this, the companies claim that their China website is simply to support their sales while actual sales are conducted either offline or outside of China.

However, there are risks in operating this way, most notably being blocked permanently, something very difficult to reverse. Any company looking to conduct its business like this should seek legal advice and weigh up the associated risks.

Applying for an ICP License

Before you consider applying for a license, it’s important to ask a few key questions:

Does your legal entity in China meet the below criteria?

As previously indicated, only domestic companies or joint ventures (JVs) with domestic stakes of no less than 50% can apply for a licence. The only exception to this is WFOE eCommerce companies in Shanghai, which can apply for a licence if the legal entity is registered in the free trade pilot zone. Registration capital of the legal entity must be at least RMB 1 million (US$150,000)

Where is your website hosted?

If your origin server is within China, which it must be if it is an e-commerce site, ICP certification is required.

Do you have the required documents?

In order to file for a license, you will need to have:

  • A copy of the Business License of your company’s Chinese legal entity.
  • An ID card copy of the contact person for your site (who must be a Chinese national).
  • Photo ID of the business owner (who can be a foreign national).
  • Signed ICP application forms, including information on your official company name, registered address, contact person’s details, website information and any necessary documentation required in the application.
  • Proof that you have the capital and expertise needed to develop your business activities.
  • Proof of credibility and capability to provide long-term service to customers.
  • A strong business development plan and the related technical solutions.
  • Proof of website and information on security measures used on the site (for example, information encryption, user information management policy, etc.)
  • A full company brief.
  • Recent financial reports audited by audit/accounting firms or a capital check report.
  • Information about your company’s policy, ownership, shareholder structure and information about the relevant shareholders.
  • Approval of the business and industry scope from related government authorities if the internet information service to be provided is in the news, publishing, education, medical or medical instruction industries.

Once you have completed your application, gathered relevant documentation and had it signed by a legal representative of your company, you can then scan and send off your application for approval through the hosting company you are using. Please note that your forms MUST be completed in Chinese.

Applying for an ICP Filing

Before you consider applying for an ICP filing, you will need to ensure that you have:

  • A copy of the Business License of your company’s Chinese legal entity.
  • An ID card copy and photo ID of the person in charge of your website.
  • A photo of the person in charge of your website taken and collected by the service provider of your site access server when they process your filing request.
  • Information about the structure of your company’s board.
  • ID documents of the legal representative of your company.
  • A copy of the certificate of independent domain name registration.
  • Official permission from related government authorities if your website falls under the news, publishing, education, medical, culture, radio broadcasting, movie or TV industries.
  • The following information: domain name/IP address of the home page, the method of site access (virtual access/renting servers/purchasing servers), provider of the site access servers, server location, a list of all the domain names and a list of all relevant IP addresses.

Once you have completed your application, you can then scan and send off your application (in Chinese) for approval through your web hosting company.

How long does it take to process ICP certification?

A rough estimate of the processing time is 4-8 weeks for an ICP Filing, while an ICP License tends to take longer at around 60-90 days.

Sinorbis - the faster solution for fast load times in China

Up until recently, businesses that didn’t already have a Chinese legal entity had to rely on the expertise of Chinese digital agencies to create and manage a website accessible behind the Great Firewall.

Unfortunately, for SMEs this often meant that owning a website designed to attract, engage with and sell to Chinese digital consumers was not a financially viable proposition. Or, if they could afford to do this, the lack of transparency and language barrier meant they didn’t feel they were in complete control of their brand.

Sinorbis is the first integrated digital marketing platform designed for Western businesses looking to market to Chinese online consumers. Our hosting environment and coding have been optimised to guarantee fast website load time in mainland China without the need for an ICP filing.

Please Note: While we have done our best to present a basic understanding of ICP certification requirements, this post is solely for informational purposes and should not be taken as legal advice from the author or Sinorbis.

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