Almost anyone who has moved to a new country knows that setting up the basics, like a bank account, are the hardest tasks to do. That’s why Ellis was created for international students planning to study in the U.S. Before they arrive, they can open a debit account with Ellis’ neobank and sign up for a 5G cellphone plan, too. The startup is also working on a product to be a co-signer on leases.
Ellis announced today it has raised a $5.6 million seed round led by Kindred Ventures, with participation from Castle Island Ventures, 20VC, Dreamers VC and V1.VC. The round also included investment from a host of founders, many of whom are immigrants: Pipe Founder’s Harry Hurst; DoNotPay’s Joshua Browder; Balaji Srinivasan; EightSleep’s Matteo Franceschetti; Sardine’s Soups Ranjan; Monzo’s Tom Blomfield; River FInancial’s Alexander Leishman and Andrew Benson; Landis’ Cyril Berdugo and Tom Petit; Italic’s Jeremy Cai; and Fountain’s Keith Ryu.
Ellis was founded by Sampei Omichi, who moved to the U.S. in 2017 to attend college, before working at fintech River Financial. Omichi told TechCrunch he founded Ellis because “what many fail to realize is that college campuses are the modern day Ellis Islands for high-skilled immigrants and entrepreneurs in the U.S.” Some examples of former international students include Elon Musk, Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai, he noted.
When Omichi moved to the U.S. five years ago, he had to figure out how to get a prepaid phone plan, set up a bank account without a Social Security number and apply for a debit card. Then he spent years dealing with the visa process, tax policies for non-residents and having to maintain travel and immigration documents in several systems—“all leading to long hours of stress and, at the lowest point, risk of deportation,” he said.
Along the way, he met many other international students who were dealing with the same problems. After being rejected for a H1-B visa in 2021, Omichi decided to start Ellis. He added that his guiding principle is his younger brother, who is currently a senior in high school about to move to the U.S. for college, too.
“This is a market that has been long overlooked and is treated like second-class citizens by financial institutions and tech companies,” said Omichi.
Ellis works by collecting basic documents, like a passport, Form 1-20 or DS-2019, and then using the information to give immigrants a phone plan, international checking account and a debit card before they move to the U.S. The same information is also used to create an immigration profile that automates all paperwork, including applying for a Social Security card, filing non-resident tax returns, building credit profiles, renewing visas and petitioning for work authorization.
Ellis Money is a neobank for international students moving to the U.S. Users without a Social Security number provide a passport, and Form 1-20 or DS-2019 to open an FDIC-insured bank account four months before they move to the U.S. Accounts can be funded with SWIFT wires and domestic ACH, and they can either use a virtual debit card or get mailed a physical one. Ellis Money is partnered with Blue Ridge Bank to provide checking account services. Ellis Mobile, meanwhile, is an MVNO built on top of T-Mobile’s network. It will launch in May.
As for the co-signer product, called Ellis Rent, the company will start work on it later this year. Since most international students’ parents don’t make U.S. income, they can’t act as co-signers on rent, said Omichi. As a result, students often need to pay 6 to 12 months of rent upfront. He said that Ellis is currently working with insurance providers to underwrite this risk so it can act as a co-signer.
The funding will be used on product and engineering, and also Ellis’ core distribution strategy of partnering with international education agencies around the world.