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You probably don’t need an ICP license, here’s why

You’ve probably read that to break into the thriving Chinese marketplace can be a complicated process. Foreign website owners must obtain an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license. You’ve likely also read that trying to get one of these coveted licenses is no easy task. Worse, many people put in the time and work only to be denied in the end.

The good news is that you likely don’t need an ICP to reach this lucrative market. There are several viable alternatives to ICP licensing that can get your website in front of people accessing it in China. 

It’s worth the effort to evaluate whether an alternative ICP solution is right for you.

What is an ICP license, and how difficult is it to get one?

ICP licenses are issued by the Chinese government to China-based websites and allow licensees to host websites on servers in mainland China. Without an ICP license, sites hosted on a Chinese server will not load on browsers located anywhere in the country.

There are two categories of ICP licenses: commercial licenses and Bei’an licenses.

Commercial ICP licenses allow companies to operate China-targeted e-commerce sites. China requires a commercial ICP license for websites that generate income from online sales or advertising, in addition to websites that permit payment transactions.

Bei’an licenses, also known as “ICP filings,” are granted for non-commercial, informational websites. These sites are accessible by the public in China, but companies cannot use them for ecommerce of any kind. 

The Chinese government restricts ICP license applications to narrowly identified entities and individuals:

  • Chinese nationals
  • Foreign passport holders who will stay in the country long enough to fulfill registration requirements
  • Chinese-owned businesses with a Chinese business license
  • Wholly foreign-owned companies that hold a Chinese business license
  • Joint venture businesses where a Chinese company owns a majority of the company
icp is really hard to get

While it is possible to acquire an ICP license without meeting one of these requirements through a special application process, the likelihood of approval is very low. 

Many companies hoping to expand into China apply for an ICP through the foreign passport holder rules, which are quite involved. Foreign passport holders must:

  • Obtain a Chinese landline and cell phone number
  • Set up an Alipay.com account connected to an international credit card or other approved source of funds
  • Appoint a government-approved representative who will accept mail and mail in necessary paperwork and application responses
  • Learn to speak and read Mandarin Chinese with acceptable fluency

Once an entity or individual is approved to apply for the ICP license, they will confront a long, tedious list of additional requirements. The process can take months. 

In the end, there’s a good chance the Chinese government will deny an application, especially those originating from foreign passport holders.

Why you probably don’t need an ICP license

While ICP may be necessary for some organizations, many companies can sidestep this requirement and still deliver content to China-based website visitors. 

You may not need an ICP when:

China isn’t your primary market.

Unless you plan to conduct most of your transactions in China or if you expect the majority of traffic to happen in China, jumping through the required hoops to obtain an ICP is unlikely to be worthwhile. If you plan to focus primarily on testing the Chinese market, the ICP process becomes even less appealing.

Another consideration is the high cost involved in registering a business in China. Each ICP license costs about $140,000, a price point that is difficult to justify for an organization that does not plan to prioritize China-based business.

Near-China CDN can do the job.

Near-China Content Delivery Networks (CDN) includes CDN companies that have Points of Presence (PoPs) located near, but not inside, the Chinese border. Because these CDNs do not lie within China’s boundaries, no ICP license is required to provide content to visitors in China.  

South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam either share a border or are located near China, making these countries prime locations for Near-China CDN.

Near-China CDN providers
Near-China CDN providers on Mlytics

Near-China CDN offers limited performance capabilities versus a proper China-based host or CDN. However, if your main goal is achieving some level of Chinese visibility, Near-China CDN is likely to fit the bill. 

Websites that host static content and basic interactivity are better suited for Near-China CDN over sites that offer streaming content or complex features. 

Your website isn’t “China compliant”

China infamously restricts the content that can be accessed by its residents and anyone visiting the country. Popular free resources provided by tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, for example, are not accessible from China-hosted websites. 

Even Google Analytics, widely used throughout the world to analyze website traffic, cannot function properly in China due to the so-called Great Firewall of China (GFW). Sites that use these resources are likely to experience glitches that make it impossible to view them if they even manage to load. 

One way companies work around this issue is by adding China-friendly resources to their websites that render based on the user’s location: Google Analytics in the US and Baidu Tongji analytics in China, for example. 

Until your website can adequately function in China, there’s no point in rushing through the ICP licensing process. 

Start Expanding into the China market without an ICP License

Take some time to evaluate whether your organization truly needs an ICP license. If, like many companies, you find that your needs can be met with basic CDN service, you can start expanding your reach into China with Near-China CDN technology.

You’ll discover several options for partnering with a Near-China CDN provider —be sure to examine the quality of their services before selecting one. Often, performance is inconsistent and insufficient for even basic website hosting. 

Before/after using Near-China CDN
(The red color represents the slower speed and the green color represents the faster speed)

Mlytics has taken care to vet CDNs that offer Near-China capabilities, selecting some of the best and integrating them into our platform. Three of our favorite Near-China CDN providers are:

  • BaishanCloud
  • CDNetwork
  • Chunghwa Telecom
  • Wangsu

Mlytics takes the pain out of sifting through countless CDN solutions to find reliable Chinese hosting solutions. The Mlytics platform incorporates multiple, top-tier Near-China CDNs so you can leverage their power through a single, intuitive service.