I’m not sure there is any way to “beat” the system when it comes to exchange rates. One way or another, you’re going to pay fees. But there is a better way than just going through your bank, for most of us at least.
Since January 2013, I have been earning in U.S. dollars but paying my mortgage and other expenses relating to my Paris apartment in euros. So I needed to find a way of minimizing the transaction costs when exchanging dollars into euros. These last three years, I have been using WorldFirst, and have been very pleased with them. The customer service is exceptional, and I definitely save a good bit of money compared to exchanging through my bank (be it HSBC, Citibank or my French bank, BNP Paribas).
Note that while a number of banks claim not to charge any fees, they seriously manipulate the exchange rate, taking a huge cut off the top. Whatever method you decide to go with, be sure you’ve done your homework or you could be losing hundreds of dollars each month!
Until recently, with WorldFirst, I would set up a transfer to my BNP Paribas (French) account via my WorldFirst account. Then I would set up a wire transfer from my U.S. account to WorldFirst’s U.S. account. I did it monthly, so it only took a few minutes. It’s still an option, and with the wire transfer option, it only takes a day for the money to arrive in your euro account. But WorldFirst just recently added a new feature that enables you to set up a transfer on the WorldFirst site and just click “direct debit” and it will debt your U.S. account without the need for a wire transfer. It takes me about 20 seconds each time (and saves you any wire transfer fees that your U.S. bank may charge). The only downside to the direct debit option is that the money takes several days to arrive in your euro account, so you need to plan ahead a bit more.
If you have another economical method for sending money overseas, please share!