Elias was born in São Paulo, Brazil. She started studying piano when she was seven, and at age twelve she was transcribing solos from jazz musicians. She began teaching piano when she was fifteen, and began performing at seventeen with Brazilian singer-songwriter Toquinho and touring with the poet Vinicius de Moraes.
In 1981 she moved to New York City, where she attended The Juilliard School of Music. A year later she became part of the group Steps Ahead. In 1993 Elias signed with EMI Classics to record classical pieces, which were released on On the Classical Side.
In 2001, Calle 54, a documentary film by Spanish director Fernando Trueba, included Elias performing "Samba Triste." In 2002 she recorded The Lost Days with Denyce Graves, for whom she wrote a composition entitled "HaabiaTupi." In 2002, Elias signed with RCA/Bluebird, which issued Kissed by Nature. Dreamer was released in 2004 and received the Gold Disc Award, as well as being voted Best Vocal Album in Japan. It reached No. 3 on the pop charts in France and No. 4 on the Billboard magazine charts in the U.S. Around the City was released by RCA Victor in August 2006. In 2007, Elias released Something for You, which won Best Vocal Album of the Year and the Gold Disc Award in Japan. Something for You reached No. 1 on the U.S. jazz charts, No. 8 on Billboard, and No. 2 on the French jazz charts. In 2008, she recorded Bossa Nova Stories to celebrate the 50th anniversary of bossa nova.
In 2009, EMI Japan released Eliane Elias Plays Live. Light My Fire, released in 2011, features four compositions written or co-written by Elias and includes covers of songs by the Doors, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Desmond. In September 2011, her song "What About the Heart (Bate Bate)" was nominated for a Latin Grammy in the category of Best Brazilian Song. In 2012 she collaborated with bassist Marc Johnson on the album Swept Away, the Editor's and Critic's choice in 2012 Downbeat and Jazztimes magazines, respectively. Her 2013 release, I Thought About You, reached No. 1 on the U.S. and French Amazon.com websites; No. 2 on iTunes U.S., France and Brazil; and No. 4 on Billboard.
Made in Brazil, was followed by Dance of Time, which debuted at No. 1 on two Billboard: jazz and world music. Both Made in Brazil and Dance of Time debuted at No. 1 on iTunes in seven countries and won Grammy awards for Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year.
Her 2019 album Love Stories reached the #1 position as Best Seller Amazon.com Latin Jazz, #1 Best Seller Amazon.com Brazilian Jazz and #2 Best Seller Amazon.com Orchestral.
Her 2021 album Mirror, Mirror, which she recorded with Chick Corea and Chucho Valdès, won the Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album.