Diff. between Pre-approval and a Pre-qualification letter?

Hi guys im buying a house and i already found one, my agent told me to get a pre-approval letter or pre-qual letter so we can start off to get a house.. i was approved to get a mortgage loan and my Loan Officer send me this bunch of papers need to sign in and return it back.. but im confused do i really need to sign in those papers before i start to look for a house??? how long does it take to process this stuff??? i really have no idea can somebody help me, explain it to me briefly… THANKS!!

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